The British government just spent about $26,000 topping off the Prime Minister’s wine cellar, causing a predictable stink.
Labour’s Tom Watson said the Tory-Lib Dem coalition should sell the wine to boost the public finances, quoting Tory slogan “we’re all in this together”. The government says it buys wine young to ensure the best value for taxpayers.
The cellar — which is available to all government ministers for official functions — contains about 39,500 bottles purchased at a total cost of around $1.2 million. That’s a little more than $30 a bottle. A couple of years ago the contents of the cellar were described in the British media as “35,000 ‘fine’ wines and 2,000 ‘reception’ or ‘beverage’ wines,” which I take to mean the wines they serve when the general public is allowed in.
The most expensive items are understood to include cases of 1931 vintage port worth £1,000 a bottle and a 1955 Chateau Latour, a claret valued at more than £200. There are thought to be 180 clarets’ available in the cellar and the most expensive bottle purchased last year was a Vieux Chateau Certan 2000 worth about £70.
The British government spends about $100,000 a year on wine for the ministers’ cellar.
Over here, on the other hand, The White House doesn’t maintain an actual cellar, keeping on hand about 600 bottles for emergency use and buying what’s needed for events as needed. When President and Mrs. Whoever host, say, a state dinner, a committee of three chooses American wine at politically unobjectionable prices that has been thoroughly vetted to avoid embarrassing symbolism. This modest approach to wine was not always the case, however:
Records surviving from 1845 document an extravagant meal, a formal, four-hour affair, that featured a flight of six wines – including pink Champagne, ruby Port and Sauternes – served by the expansive Sarah Polk, wife of President James K. Polk. But by the 1870s, when Rutherford B. Hayes was president, the Women’s Temperance Movement was gaining momentum, and First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes banned wine and liquor service in The White House.
During Prohibition itself, President Hoover bootlegged wine and liquor into the White House, and when the Kennedys took over, Bordeaux reigned supreme. Lyndon Johnson made the all-American pledge, and one can only wonder what foreign dignitaries thought when Gerald Ford took things one step farther by serving only wines from his home state, Michigan — which may make some pretty good wine now, but back in 1974 offered pretty bleak pickings.
At his first state dinner, President Obama served 2006 Brooks “Ara” Willamette Valley Riesling, a roughly $25 bottle deemed to both match the soup course and be inoffensive to the guest of honor, the Prime Minster of India. The entire vintage of the wine sold out the day after the dinner’s menu was announced.