The White House Wine Cellar
by Aerin Rose
The train back to DC glided quickly like a light shiraz. The sunset threw dark rose tones through the window as Samuel thought back over the past 48 hours. He had been asleep two nights ago when a steam pipe exploded on the ground floor of the White House Residence. The damage it had done was exact, almost artistic. The entire wine closet had been demolished, blasted with hot water and rubble from the closet walls. The kitchen had a layer of wet grimy dirt, but nothing had been really harmed. The only other losses were some portraits in the subbasement storage below the wine closet, as well as the sole extant copy of a sci-fi novel written by Teddy Roosevelt.
Samuel rubbed his thumb against his index and middle fingers. The subtle gesture was all he had allowed himself in the way of fidgeting for the past twenty years. With the President’s formal birthday dinner so near, Samuel, as assistant usher in charge of wine and food, didn’t think it tenable to miss the lunch and tasting in New York, not even the day after the explosion. Over a hundred California wines would be available. He knew the President had been looking forward to the new crop of Sauvignon Blanc.
He studied the 2007 Etude pinot noir rose that he’d carried onto the train with him. He’d enjoyed this buoyant newcomer. The aroma went beyond the glass, a bigger wine than its taste, a good candidate for the Senior Staff luncheon in a few weeks. Samuel berated himself. He should have taken some of the bottles home. A few months ago, he noticed the humidity of the wine closet had dropped severely. He’d briefly considered, then, just tucking a few into his briefcase, and putting them in his own private cellar, for safe keeping.
“We are proud to serve only American wine,” Samuel had said to the lunch companions who jested about Lyndon Johnson’s edict. His soft words clipped and accentuated the word proud. He recalled Congressman Deere’s luncheon, at which he’d served the Arcturos Pinot Gris, vintage 2004. The tomato bisque with leek and the Great Lakes Walleye Pike with butternut squash had been an excellent stage for the clean fruit and exuberant structure of the Pinot Gris, a Michigan wine. Michigan!
David was waiting for him at the Residence. “Mr. P wants to see you,” he said by way of greeting. David had been recruited as an usher about 5 years ago and had been the one on duty when the explosion happened.
“Whooshing,” he said, when asked what he heard. “And then heat and steam, like a sauna.” Three Secret Service agents had rushed to the Second Floor to secure the First family but David himself had braved the downstairs. Chefs fleeing past him, he’d been the one to shut off the water main and assess the damage.
Samuel found the President in the Treaty Room, in his red plaid Ralph Lauren sleep pants and a dark thermal shirt, stretched to his full length on the leather couch, with a bottle of red sitting on the floor and a glass in his hand.
“I just finished an entire season of ‘House’,” the President mused. “What did we do without Tivo?”
For a moment, Samuel wasn’t sure what to say. The man before him was young, just over 50. He’d run a charismatic campaign two years earlier and won easily. His wife was a pediatrician, and had taken her practice part-time to parent their 9-year-old twin boys. They were as aristocratic a family as you could find in the States: elegant, reserved, and kind. Even the boys remembered to ask after staff members’ families or wish them a happy birthday. They were miniature versions of their erudite, mild-mannered father, whose easy charm had wooed more than one international diplomat towards peaceful treaties.
To see the greatest leader of the United States since JFK reduced to watching Tivo in his pajamas made Samuel speechless.
“Sir,” he finally said. “how are you?” At any other time, Samuel would have cleared his throat, asked “you wanted to see me?” However, the particular nature of this recent catastrophe united the two men and lent them informal courtesies.
The President turned slate-blue eyes on Samuel, taking a minute to focus.
“Better today, thanks. They don’t prepare you for tragedies like these. 9-11, yes, Katrina in New Orleans, but this?”
“I share your sympathies, sir.”
“Which is why I wanted to talk to you about a call I got today.” The President sat up, shook himself, and straightened his terrycloth robe. “France called.”
“France?” Samuel frowned. It had been nearly a year since French President Jacques Chirac visited. They’d served Chateau Woltner in Napa Valley and Domaine Drouhin Oregon, both French-owned wineries and both, thought Samuel still, wise choices.
“It makes sense that the French would be first, but then the Spanish, the Australians, the Chliean president. Some minor Italian official, which figures…”
“Sir, I’m not following.”
“Samuel, they’re all offering wine. Their finest wines. Some of them from their own collections, some from private reserves.” He paused. “I think we’re going to need an Official White House Wine Cellar. An international one.”
“Are you certain?” Samuel was stunned. “Really? I mean, it’s now, what, a sixty year tradition since President Johnson’s edict.”
“I know. And I respect Johnson’s choice to only serve American wines. Even more I know it’s a boost to our own economy. My thought was to set up a sort of exchange program. We buy wine at their recommendation, they buy ours. It would require a solid diplomat, Sam, as well as a sommelier. That’s why I want you.” Samuel said nothing, so the President continued. “Think of it, Sam. How long has this world been at war? I’m not saying alcohol is the answer to the world’s problems, but think of the doors it could open, the connections we could forge.
“Does sound like a promising idea,” the usher conceded. “I’m honored, sir. I’ll think about it, may I?” The President nodded and moved back to recline on the couch.
“What are you drinking now, sir?”
“You know, it’s a Malbec, of all things. Pearmund Cellars, 2007. Not too bad; nice raspberry aroma. I’m getting ready to catch up on Season Four of ‘Lost.’ Want to join me?”
“No, thank you. Good night, Mr. President.” Samuel left the Residence, confused and elated. He’d never hoped to imagine that international wines could be available to him as options for White House serving. And yet, now, he himself could be the one to choose, without limitation, how best to fill a new, perfectly built wine cellar.
“The most noted wine enthusiast to occupy the White House was Thomas Jefferson,” Samuel intoned the next morning at the memorial being held in the Rose Garden. He’d been asked to give the eulogy for the former wine closet and its contents, while setting the stage for a new era in wine diplomacy.
He had prepared an overly formal luncheon, because dinner would be a private affair to allow the President and his family time to mourn. Even as he talked about the history of wine at the White House, Samuel reviewed the lunch in his head: the service of white wine and first course, the serving of red wine and main course, the salad course, and the dessert service. The 55-minute meal was a dance that he had practiced many times during the past 20 years.
He ended the eulogy with the quip that Ronald Reagan was so enamored of California wines he had to be reminded that he was President of the United States, not President of California.
“So we too must remember these bottles go ahead of us to pave the way for an even greater celebration of the fruits of the vine.” He finished with a dryness in his mouth. The pressure of the choices of the past few days and the somber mood of the gathered dignitaries overwhelmed him.
After reviewing schedules and contracts with the Chief Usher that evening, Samuel went in search of his boss. He predictably found the President in the Treaty Room, coat thrown to the side, watching an episode of “Gossip Girl” on Tivo.
“It was a good day, Samuel. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, sir. I came to tell you that I would be happy to take the lead on the wine cellar project.”
The President’s eyes slid closed in relief.
“Glad to hear it.”
“Should I contact your secretary to set up a meeting?”
“No, god, no. Do you have time now?” The President stood and switched off his television. “Awful stuff. Who watches those shows?”
Samuel spent the next few months consulting with the President, flying around the world, comparing notes with Kings and Prime Ministers and sommeliers of every nationality, sampling and choosing the brightest and best of all the vintages offered on Earth. He recommended Canyon Wind Desert Rose from Colorado to his Excellency the President of the Republic of South Africa, and made certain that two full cases of Pio Cesare Barolo Ornato 2004 were purchased for the White House collection. The gorgeous bottles of reds and whites symbolized the new peace accord in a new world.
Not everyone was happy in the new way of things. Serious breweries (“not the kind that make pale piss-water,” David reported) were forced to close or to merge with wineries to stay solvent. Now and again, Samuel even encountered rioters. These were demonstrations held by religious extremists, and by those who thought that to eschew the nation’s Puritanical roots was unpatriotic. (Of course the Puritans had used outhouses, too, Samuel told himself, and no one had boycotted plumbing as unpatriotic. The religious extremists couldn’t be helped.) These minor incidences, however, were easily expectorated, cleansing the national palate for a lush finish of optimism and hope brought in by the new exchanges.
Back in D.C., the new wine cellars were built to Samuel’s specifications. He’d researched Jefferson’s original cellars to minute detail, replicated what he could, and improvised what he couldn’t. Modern technology allowed the entire space a split cooling system, to maintain a temperature of 55° Fahrenheit and a relative humidity of 61.3%. Wrought iron sconces hung in the niches of walls, their low lights all on individual dimmers. The racking was mahogany, framed impressively by stone arches. Two large tasting rooms had been done in an earthy red, oversized tile, with wine barrel tasting tables and bar stools. The sheer beauty of the cellars made him feel inebriated.
When the final bottle of the new generation had been set into the perfect cellars, he’d been hailed a hero. The President had raised his glass and they’d all cheered for him. Him, Samuel Dansforth, son of two high school teachers in central California, now assistant usher in the White House of the greatest era of the United States history.
Late in October, he settled into one of the wingback chairs in the room he and Kristin used as their sitting room. Pictures of his grandchildren perched on the mantle, and late autumn winds swirled around the glass panes of the windows. Watching the fire brought to Sam’s mind a snappy Chilean he’d chosen a week earlier, for a state dinner honoring His Majesty the king of Morocco. The power of pairing such odd couples of wines and guests intoxicated him. The artistry of the dissonance fulfilled his soul as nothing else ever had. He was pouring himself the first glass of his own decanted bottle when he heard his wife’s purposeful steps.
“Well, the new kitchen sink is installed,” Kristin sighed as she settled into the chair across from him with some Eudora Welty paperback in her hand. “Oh, and the plumber said he needs his books back.”
“Hmm? Oh, yes,” he feigned memory with a little frown, a practiced lie coming quicky to his lips. “A bolt needed to be tightened in the ushers’ bathroom. Small one. I didn’t want to bother the Chief Plumber. Been months ago, now.”
“Well, then, that’s good,” she said. “What are you drinking?”
“Oxford Landing Limited Release Viognier 2000. I chose it for the First Lady’s book club, but I liked it enough that I stopped and picked up a bottle on the way home.” She reached for the glass, swirled, sniffed, sipped and savored.
“Not bad. Mind if I get a glass?” She reached for the extra one on the tray.
“Not at all. K, I’m going to go find those plumbing books to give to Patrick. I don’t want to forget again.” He raised his glass with her and carried it with him upstairs.
Samuel knew right where the books were, of course, or at least their replacements. A year ago, he hadn’t realized that he was making too many pencil notes in the margins to be able to return the books to Patrick. New copies were sitting in the Amazon box under the spring suit jackets in his closet. Samuel had been as meticulous in his research as he was in detecting cork taint. Then he’d burned Patrick’s books, burned his own notes, burned the slips of paper with the measurements he’d taken of the subbasement.
“You know, Sam,” Kristin called to him. “I’m surprised you like this one, as young as it is, and with the melon notes on top. Those Australians. Always a shaky start but such a smooth finish.”
Kristin was the only one who might guess, if he wasn’t careful. Not that she would blame him. She appreciated that twenty years of domestic wines would drive any oenophile to desperate acts. After all, he couldn’t just quit the job of White House usher. But how many California reds would he have had to endure? Yes, Kristin would understand why the wine closet had had to go, even if he could never have predicted the tremendous results of its destruction. Still, he didn’t feel like sharing his secret. He wanted the knowledge to linger, so that he alone could have the pleasure of savoring it.
Samuel smiled into the fire as he returned to his wife’s side.
“Yes, quite. Quite a smooth finish, indeed.”