Wine Open

June 14, 2012

Today’s column in the St. Helena Star

I confess to being bipolitical, meaning I swing both ways — from liberal to conservative — depending upon the issue. Not that there are definitive distinctions between the two these days, with conservatives legislating personal freedom and liberals waging war all over the place.

I miss the days when you could clearly tell a conservative from a liberal, not just by their politics but from across the room at a party: the conservative being the fellow in matching bow tie and suspenders, the liberal rocking a ponytail and wearing bicycle clips on his corduroy bell-bottoms.

And while we’re stereotyping, I often perceive conservatives as secretive, possibly the result of their years of expense-account padding, while liberals are prone to over-sharing, relating details during dinner about their childbirth experiences that would make a gynecologist queasy.

But this stereotype was recently tested when I was stymied by a supposedly liberal government department surprisingly hell-bent on keeping me in unemployed ignorance: the office of the first lady of the United States.

I was asked by the editor of an international wine magazine to provide a list of the California wines most commonly served at White House state dinners over the years. Given the current administration’s commitment to open and transparent government, this sounded like a relatively easy task.

But that was before I met the stonewalling women of the first lady’s East Wing press office who, after much confusion concerning the person in charge, brusquely informed me that the information I was seeking would not be released, knowledgeable persons would not be made available for interview, and I should buzz off.

You see, the White House was criticized when it was revealed that a wine served to the Chinese president in 2011 was reselling for $399 a bottle. And so the long tradition of releasing names of wines served at state dinners — wine paid for by the taxpayers, mind you — was terminated, and the information is no longer made available to the public.

I’ve always admired the first lady, and her commitment to veterans and to exercise and to children eating veggies off the White House lawn. I’ve even heard that she selected certain wines for Christmas because they were made by women winemakers. So I’m certain that if she and I could chat about this over tea and her favorite low-fat snack bars, we’d have it sorted out in no time and she would ensure that our wines had their moment in the spotlight. But her press office — not so much.

It made me wish, as I often do, that we had Britain’s queen as our head of state. For one thing, there would be no doubt about precisely who was in charge: some placid palace undersecretary for wine, spirits and silly hats who would rebuff me, but in a silky British accent. I would then simply consult one of many royal-watchers’ treatises on the subject, such as: “Wines of the Greater Americas, West, As Served by Her Majesty on the Occasion of Entertaining Visiting Dignitaries, Volume I: the Pre-Drip-Irrigation Years.”

Meanwhile, back in the Republic, we the people employ armies of snooty conservationists, butlers and ushers busily dusting the Limoges while eagerly awaiting inquiries about wines served during the Johnson administration that will never reach them. Some poncy silver-polisher could easily rattle off California wines featured at Capitol events, unless he is the one who let slip the cost of that $399 bottle and is now serving as chief usher at Guantanamo Bay.

And just when did it become appropriate to answer criticism by announcing a future intention to hide the facts? Why not simply serve Two-Buck Chuck to the next visiting dignitary, and hope the bitter aftertaste doesn’t lead to global thermonuclear war?

In desperation I consulted a congressman’s office, and was told by a frustrated staffer that he would have an easier time providing the name of the first lady’s shoe designer than the identity of a California winemaker.

Have no fear; in the grand tradition of American journalism, I did some Internet research, called everyone from the Vintners association to the Star staffers to individual wineries, and with invaluable assistance from the Napa Wine Library was able to reconstruct a partial list. The magazine editor seemed pleased.

But why this post-traumatic-press-related oenophobia? Surely people object to the amount spent on helicopters and rocket launchers, too. This was an opportunity to shine a light on a few California wineries in a magazine read around the world.

But that mattered little to a White House criticized, justly or not, for serving a nice bottle of wine to the president of a country that owns the mortgage on ours. And if you can’t stand even that medium-low heat, maybe you should go back into the wine cellar and chill.