In honor of July 4th, we are joined today by Daniel Shanks, former Director of Food and Beverage at the White House. Shanks, who is originally from the Washington DC area, worked as a long-time manager of Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon restaurant Étoile. In 1995, he was selected to be an assistant usher at the White House during the Clinton administration. Shanks has overseen food and beverage operations for multiple administrations since this time, creating wine and food pairings for state dinners for over 20 years.
Learn more about Daniel Shanks in the interview below.
Karen MacNeil: How did you typically serve wine during state dinners, from the bottle or from decanters? Did you announce the wine to each guest as sommeliers sometimes do?
Daniel Shanks: We always served wine in bottle. Mostly because we didn’t want the wine exposed to air for too long in a decanter, and we wanted to be sure to dispel any doubts in guests’ minds that we weren’t actually serving what was listed on the menu. This came to me as a possibility after listening to the oft-repeated myth that President Nixon drank well from wrapped bottles while his guests drank lesser wines. I have completed an anthology of wine service, pieced from fragments of information I could gleam from poorly kept records, from Eisenhower to Trump. The great wines Nixon drank were also on the menus for those events so the guests would have known. What he did in the Private Quarters at meals I don’t know.
KM: Describe what the White House cellar looks like.
DS: The photo enclosed is the Cellar after I had new racks placed by the carpenters. Approximately 1200 in the rack and another 160 in cases on the floor. No notes left by President Jefferson or moldy spider webs… damn…
KM: Are there White House standard selections for each style of wine such as the “house sparkling,” the “house dessert wine,” etc.?
DS: As to “House Wines,” we do keep a stock of such wine on-site and also at our National Park Service warehouse in Riverdale, Maryland. Perhaps 80% of the wine we serve is at receptions, picnics, etc. The amount of wine served, and listed on menus, is small. The goal of White House entertaining is to give the President access to the maximum number of guests and small events are a task on a President’s time, though great and intimate moments. We select a current “House White,” “House Red,” and “House Sparkling Wine,” all served from bottles. They are rotated on a consistent basis so we don’t appear to sanction anyone winery over another. They are chosen for availability to our guests, quality, and price. Many guests have gone to stores after being at a White House event to procure their own memories.
KM: Was the food and wine pairing your duty alone or did you work closely with the White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford?
DS: During my time at the White House I did work with both Chef Walter Scheib and also Chef Cris Comerford to balance wine and food pairings. Chef Cris is an incredibly dedicated and talented chef who would have great repute in a more visible position. Perhaps we didn’t team on such a consistent basis as one would in a formal dining room with a daily changing menu, but enough to ensure a homogenous feeling to all the events. The Chefs and I grew to know each other well. State dinners would see a greater amount of conversation and usually featured a preview meal with the First Family in the Private Quarters, giving a glimpse into the upcoming pairings.
KM: I remember reading about a sake that was served during the Obama administration for the state dinner honoring Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Did you work closely with the President or the First Lady when a special wine was called for?
DS: I did work closely with the President and (mostly) the First Lady and their staffs when a special wine was called for, though it was rare that it happened. The serving of the sake was one of those special moments but was unusual in many respects. First, this was a personal request from President and Mrs. Obama. It was also one of the few times we served a “wine” if you will that was produced out of the country. Our dedication was to American-made products. Also, the sake was intended for the opening toast of the Japan State Dinner, not as an accompaniment for a dish but as a special compliment to the Prime Minister. The service evolved when the First Family read about the controversy that grew in Japan when sake was served to them at a meal in their honor in Japan. The First Family asked that we research, and procure, a sake that was both well respected and from Prime Minister Abe’s region. They also had a bottle of that area’s finest sake available at Blair House, where the Prime Minister was staying, as a personal welcome. This was done at their personal expense.
KM: Are vintners surprised when they receive a phone call from the White House requesting their wine? Tell us about a particularly memorable instance.
DS: Always, without exception in my earlier years at the White House. In my later years of service, it did arise more frequently as the national political tone grew more partisan and the honor of being served at the White House was supplanted by a stronger drive not to have their product associated with the current President. I found this trend disturbing and very sad. One moment that was amusing to me happened earlier in my time when I called a Long Island winery and said I was the “White House” calling them. This set off a kind of long tirade that took me aback. Eventually, I was able to get a word in and clarified that I was really with “that White House” and wasn’t a New York restaurant of the same name that apparently was well behind on payments for the winery’s products. Turned out well and we were able to proudly serve their wine at a White House dinner.
KM: What did you do when a White House guest seemed to not like a wine?
DS: I never had a White House guest tell me, or have word get to me, that they didn’t enjoy a wine we served. I am sure, given the nature of the personal appeal of wine, that it happened. Perhaps it was just the fact the wine played a supporting role at events and they weren’t paying for the specific wine as they would have at a public meal. Most of the critique we ran into came from wine reviewers or bloggers who seemed to have a need to show their elevated knowledge. They never called to have a conversation about what drove our choices. Price was an oft-cited critique: that we didn’t buy expensive enough wines given what was available to us. They didn’t consider that the cost of White House events came under greater scrutiny year after year and although we did take price into consideration, we were always conscious of the image of money spent.
KM: I imagine that when you work at the White House, you are always “on.” Did you have any spare time or time off and what did you do when you weren’t working?
DS: My schedule was arduous but time never sleeps at the White House and Staff never grew. I was basically the conduit between the Administration’s Social Staff and the Executive Residence and personally preferred to be at every event. This was a choice I easily made. I learned the benefit of guests seeing a consistent figure when they came to the White House from my days as a maitre’d in California. The presence of someone familiar gave the institution a personality while also insuring continuity in style and techniques. My spare time was spent in my garden, traveling to wine areas, or sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. My wife frequently states that I married late because she wouldn’t put up with my workload.
KM: Which President —among the many that you served — had the best palate? Which First Lady?
DS: This is not political avoidance as to who had the best palate but an honest attempt to be fair in reply. We altered our tastes and practices to accommodate each new First Family so what we did for each wasn’t better or lesser – it just fit the moment. It was a home, and a home reflects a family. Presidents are too consumed with being President to be a factor in who had the best palate so that would fall to the First Ladies. Each First Lady I served were all admirers of wine, usually leaning to fuller, more expressive styles that reflected their own strengths.
KM: Most wine buyers are sent samples of wine to try. Did wineries send you samples at the White House, hoping you’d choose their wine?
DS: One of the hardest tasks I had at the White House was keeping up to date on the evolution of our national wine culture. At Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, as with known restaurants everywhere, we had to control wineries’ access to us when they wanted to introduce their products. Multiply that by a nation full of wineries wanting to have their wine on “America’s Table.” Many donations were offered and graciously declined. Donating, although admirable, carried the unexpressed aspect of expectations, and with so few meals served where the wine was individualized on menus not a lot of occasions to satisfy those hopes. We called wineries for samples when we needed wine, based on my past visits and notes on my travels; plus reading and exchanging with other wine professionals. It was a lot, but I think we served the country well.
KM: I imagine everyone at a state dinner is on their best behavior but did you ever witness anyone enjoying their wine a little too much?
DS: If any guests had enjoyed their wine perhaps a little too freely, we surely would have attributed their enthusiasm to the success of the event, not the volume of consumption.
KM: Do Presidents offer toasts at every state dinner? Are they simple (cheers, etc.) or more elaborate?
DS: President’s offered toasts at every State Dinner I was involved with. They varied based on the current culture of affairs between the two countries; any personal relationships the President and guests of honor may have, and the pressing immediate issues occurring. Some Presidents used humor to great effect while others offered grace and focus. The toast set the tone for the activities that surrounded the visit.
KM: Besides the state dinners, did you also choose wine for the President and First Lady when they were not entertaining, but simply having dinner at home?
DS: When the First Families entertained in the Private Quarters, we definitely provided wine support, as the Chefs would with menus for the meals. I learned to hold some wines from prior events in the Wine Cellar so I could provide wines of greater maturity and grace. Of course, as always, the primary decision was that the wines had to keep pace with the style and energy of the meal.
KM: What do you miss most about working at the White House?
DS: I miss experiencing the impact one can have on moments that are so special to so many. When you have such a small staff all efforts become so personal. I also miss the behind-the-scenes moments when you see the true grace and caring each President brings to the position. In capsule, the moment you see a guest ascend the staircase from the ground floor and turn in the Grand Foyer to a world filled with Christmas’s grandeur and the full Marine Orchestra playing as if it was just for you – one can’t stage the reaction every person is suddenly engulfed by… Not bad for “Public Housing” is it!
KM: What is one thing about you that most people would be surprised to know?
DS: That I am not the hard soul that will not tolerate less than 100% devotion from all people involved in any activity at the White House but also have a deep appreciation for the contribution everyone lends to the moment. I am also a person who lives in the beauty of every minute, often expressed in barely perceptible cues. We have a saying, almost a creed, in the Executive Residence that NO just doesn’t exist, we just haven’t tried what will yet. It worked.
“[What do I miss most about working at the White House?] I miss experiencing the impact one can have on moments that are so special to so many.”