RONALD REAGAN is the first president in the nation's history who can boast of having not one, but two wine cellars in the White House.
Never mind that one of the two cellars is actually in the corner closet of the office of presidential assistant Michael K. Deaver. Likewise, ignore the fact that Deputy Chief of Staff Deaver did not know until last month -- after being interviewed for this article -- that there really is a bona fide White House wine cellar, which contains some rare French champagnes and other enlogical curiosities.
The Californians have arrived. While Reagan's palate and his cellars may not rival those of Thomas Jefferson's, the choice of wines for formal White House functions is now serious administration business.
The president's strong ties to California and the first family's unequivocal commitment to restoring "elegance" to White House entertaining have coalesced into a conscious program to seek out and serve only the very finest American wines. "They are the best-informed administration on wine in this century," says fellow Californian John A. DeLuca, president of the Wine Institute in San Francisco.
When relaxing at their California ranch, the president and Mrs. Reagan sometimes share a margarita or a daiquiri. On occasion, the president is said to enjoy a screwdriver or one of Heublein's pre-mixed canned cocktails.But essentially, Ronald Reagan, who has collected wines for many years, is an enthusiastic oenophile.
"He really considers himself to be a wine buff," remarks Deaver, adding, "he never was anyone who was interested in hard liquor."
Mike and Carolyn Deaver, among the Reagans' closest friends, know firsthand about the president's favorite wines. At a dinner party for fellow Californians at the ranch one evening last August, Reagan dipped into his personal cellar and uncorked one of his favorite French burgundies -- a rare magnum of 1962 LaTache from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. The president's fondest wine memory, however, is said to be of a "lovely, great" 1928 Corton.
Although Reagan began buying French burgundies and clarets more than 30 years ago, his collection -- including such notables as 1947 Lafite Rothschild, 1953 Mouton Rothschild, 1947 Haut Brion and "a bottle or two" of the 1962 LaTache -- has shrunk to "about two cases." The "cellar" itself actually consists of a small wine rack in the bar area of the ranch's kitchen, protected from the California heat by thick adobe walls.
Though his tastes were developed on imported French wines, the president's tastes today run -- not surprisingly -- decidedly pro-Californian. He and the first lady particularly enjoy the California chardonnays. His favorite, however, is the 1970 BV Private Reserve, notes Deaver, who adds that Reagan selected that cabernet sauvignon for last spring's state dinner honoring the prince of Wales.
In fact, he says, the president and Mrs. Reagan often sample several suggested wines in advance of a planned state dinner, making the final selections themselves.As for their daily drinking habits, Deaver reports that the Reagans seldom drink "anything but water" when dining alone in the family quarters.
As architect and chief spokesman for the Reagan administration's "wine policy," Deaver is knowledgeable, enthusiastic and well-organized. Before leaving California to join Reagan at the White House, Deaver recruited his local wine merchant -- Dave Berkley of Sacramento's Corti Bros. -- to provide both long-distance advice and logistical support. Deaver may have Reagan's ear, but Berkley clearly has Deaver's palate. Together these two Californians choose all the fine wines previewed by the Reagans and served at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
To Berkley, good wine can also be good politics. For example, a 1974 Buena Vista Cask Cabernet Sauvignon was served at the state dinner for President Lopez Portillo of Mexico, since that particular California winery was begun on lands purchased from General Vallejo, a famous Mexican leader. Likewise, because Robert Mondavi is currently involved in a joint venture with Leeuwin Vineyards in Australia, Berkley chose a 1974 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon to serve at the state dinner for Prime Minister J. Malcolm Fraser.
At the Yorktown Bicentennial dinner for President Francois Mitterrand of France this fall, Berkley selected a madeira, not only because it was the only wine not taxed by the British in 1781, but also because it was a favorite of George Washington. The Mitterrand dinner was also special because it marked the first time that a French wine -- a 1970 d'Yquem -- had been served by the Reagan White House.
Deaver, who shares Mrs. Reagan's unabashed chauvinism in serving the best American wines, denies that his "wine policy" is anti-French. Yet, noting that only French wines were served to Reagan at the Ottawa and Cancun summit conferences this year, Deaver is obviously pleased when, for example, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada ordered an entire case of 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon after sampling a bottle at a White House state dinner earlier this year.
This pro-American policy may be put to the test, however, when Deaver and Berkley investigate that valuable cache of rare French wine resting below the State dining room in the official White House wine cellar. Behind a locked but otherwise unassuming blue door, just across a passageway from the downstairs kitchen, this one-time pantry is now the temperature-controlled (58 degrees) repository for presidential wines. According to longtime White House maitre'd and de facto sommelier John Ficklin Sr., the cellar was begun during the Franklin Roosevelt administration but completed under President Eisenhower.
Although only four feet wide and 16 feet long, the respectable if not imposing cellar contains individual wooden bins for almost 1,000 bottles of wine. The fact is, however, it is presently stocked with more hard liquor than with wine.
Yet, beyond the numerous bottles of gin and scotch resting on their sides in the built-in wooden racks, there are several dozen valuable wines and many mediocre ones. For example, there are six bottles of 1964 Pol Roger Champagne, five bottles of 1964 Dom Perignon Champagne, 13 bottles of 1966 Taittinger Blanc de Blanc Champagne and various other French champagnes from the 1966 and 1967 vintages. Most of these wines, and others such as the 1968 BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon are "odd" bottles left over from the state dinners of previous administrations. Also stored in the cellar and in a separate walk-in cooler (set at 41 degrees) are recorked bottles of previously opened wine which are used by White House chef Henry Haller in cooking. Such are the economies of a deficit-ridden administration.
The curious fact that Deaver was apparently unaware of the existence of the 1,000-bottle capacity White House wine cellar until recently may be explained in part. by his own independent grapevine. In the past, Ficklin -- who prefers rose wines and sparkling cider -- coordinated the selection of White House wines with advice and assistance from local wholesalers and retailers. Deaver has preempted this process by making the wine recommendations himself, following advice from Berkley. Aware that the Carter administration "had left some wines," Deaver instructed Ficklin to use them "for large receptions." Although Ficklin says that the storekeeper has a complete list of the wines in the White House cellar and that Deaver "was supposed to have an inventory," it appears that list has been slow in arriving at the West Wing.
Not to worry. The resourceful Deaver has his own cellar at the White House. Tucked away in a small closet in the corner of his office located not far from the Cabinet Room, Deaver keeps a stash of California wines. Reflecting his own current bias, the collection of approximately two dozen bottles consists almost exclusively of recent vintage chardonnays, such as 1979 Grgich Hills (served at Reagan's 70th birthday party), 1980 Sterling, 1979 Jordon and 1980 Silkwood (Deaver's favorite).
Asked whether he is somewhat embarrassed that the White House does not have a vast underground cellar with row upon row of rare vintage wines, Deaver responds that it would be "nice" but is unnecessary. "Why do you need a wine cellar when I can call up and get a wine here within six to eight hours if I have to?" he asks. "I don't see any reason to build a wine cellar. We already have the best of America available to us."
Tapping a readily available supply of mature red wines, however, is sometimes difficult. Indeed, the plan to serve a 1935 Simi Cabernet Sauvignon had to be scrapped earlier this year because the winery would have needed to ship twice the usual quantity required for a state dinner (about three cases) as a precaution against the likelihood of over-the-hill bottles, an expensive proposition.
Nevertheless, to accommodate the president's preference for mature red wines and to ease somewhat the administration's "supply side" problems, several California wineries -- such as BV, Simi and Louis Martini -- have agreed to put some of their best red wines in "layaway" so they can be offered at future White House dinners.
Looking to the future, Deaver and Berkley will continue to assure a wide range of California wines for the president's table, such as a 1978 Duckhorn Merlot, 1977 Carneros Creek Pinot Noir, 1979 St. Jean (Sonoma) Sauvignon Blanc and 1980 Hacienda Chenin Blanc (served to the late President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt). In addition, they have already begun to search for interesting wines from the 1952 vintage in preparation for the Reagans' 30th wedding anniversary next year.
And the problem remains of what to do with those bottles of rare French champagne lying in state in the White House cellar. Ficklin says they are "probably no good." Berkley is intrigued and thinks "they ought to be drunk up soon." Others believe these random leftovers should be donated to worthy charities. Those who know Deaver well are not concerned. They insist that Mike Deaver will enjoy getting to the bottom of this "case". CAPTION: Picture 1, [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]; Picture 2, John Ficklin in the White House wine cellar; by Bill Snead -- The Washington Post