Secret no more: Leonetti served at White House

Wine lists are kept under wraps after concerns were voiced about serving expensive wines in tough economic times.

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WALLA WALLA - Leonetti Cellar has long been known as one of Walla Walla's most exclusive wineries. But classified?

That was apparently the status of the winery's identity, as well as those of several others featured Wednesday at a White House state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The event - described as the biggest party yet thrown by President Barack Obama and the first lady - included a four-course meal and live performances for the star-studded guest list.

As usual for such a celebration, details of the menu were released. However, the wines that accompanied each course went noticeably undisclosed.

One of them was a 2008 Walla Walla Valley cabernet sauvignon from Leonetti Cellar. The wine accompanied the main course: bison Wellington with a red wine reduction, French beans and cipollini onion.

This became known, in part, because one of the people attending the dinner happened to be Eric LeVine, founder of one of the world's most comprehensive wine databases, CellarTracker, who shared what he'd been served as well as his tasting notes.

According to various media reports, the White House has stopped releasing its wine lists because of an experience with a Washington wine during the January 2011 state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

One of the wines poured for the Chinese president was a 2005 Quilceda Creek cabernet sauvignon, which had received a prestigious 100-point rating from "Wine Advocate" reviewer Jay Miller.

Incidentally, a Walla Walla wine - Poet's Leap from Long Shadows Vintners - was also served at that dinner. But that's not where the controversy came.

As the story goes, the Quilceda Creek wine had originally carried a price of $115 a bottle, but with the high rating from Miller it spiked in price to as much as $400 by the time of the dinner.

What the White House actually paid was not officially disclosed, though Quilceda Creek General Manger John Ware told "Bloomberg Businessweek" it was "closer to the $115."

Nevertheless, critics said the purchase for the dinner was lavish and set a bad example of spending for the economic times in which we live.

The public has since been proverbially cut off from the wine lists - a move not unnoticed by those keeping track of the president's commitment to transparency.

"It's probably caused them a little more of a headache to try to keep it a secret," said Heidi Figgins, marketing and creative director for Figgins Family Wine Estates, which includes Leonetti.

She said this is the fourth time Leonetti's wines have been poured at presidential events. The others: A governor's dinner in February 2000 during the Clinton administration; the Israel-Palestine discussions at Camp David in January 2001; and at the White House during a May 2001 event hosted by George W. Bush. Leonetti's 1998 merlot was poured at all three.

The winery has collected menus from past dinners and framed them in a display.

The Leonetti served last week runs about $85 a bottle, Figgins said.

After the flak the administration received from the Quilceda Creek wine, she said the White House may be more sensitive to the appearance to the public. On the other hand, the event is a formal affair building diplomacy and trade, which means an opportunity to showcase the best of the best - from a guest list that includes George Clooney, William Buffet and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to live entertainment from John Legend and Mumford & Sons. And it comes at a price.

"The flowers on the table probably cost as much or more than the wine," Figgins noted.

Some have said the secrecy downplays the promotion of the U.S. wines, which benefit from the exposure.

Long Shadows Vintners resident winemaker Gilles Nicault, who works with internationally acclaimed winemakers on individual wines produced at Long Shadows, said sales of Poet's Leap spiked after the wine was served to the Chinese president during the state dinner in 2011. Nicault declined to share the exact increase but said it was definitely attributable to the dinner.

"Basically people would call and say, ‘Which wine was used for the state dinner. I'd like to order some,'" he said. He said for at least two weeks after the event, he had new orders daily.

"People are probably very curious to see what's good enough to serve to the chief executive," Nicault said.

Long Shadows subsequently built an export relationship. "We now ship wine to China, probably because of that," he said.

Nicault said Pedestal, another wine in the Long Shadows family, has been served at state dinners in the past, including at an event with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Pedestal was a particularly appropriate choice given its collaboration between renowned French winemaker Michel Rolland and the Washington state winery.

Whether an increase in sales resulted when Woodward Canyon's 2009 chardonnay was served at the state dinner for German Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel last June was not as clear.

The release of the wine lists had reportedly been part of a long tradition that continued during Obama's first three state dinners. The third of those was the dinner for the Chinese president.

By the time of the fourth dinner, in which Woodward Canyon was served, details of the wine were no longer served. The winery announced the inclusion of its chardonnay on its own website.

"People noticed it, and certainly we got congratulations from a variety of people," said Woodward Canyon co-owner and General Manager Darcey Fugman-Small. "But in terms of sales there was no huge uptick."

Anecdotally the winery received requests for that specific wine when it was featured at winemaker dinners in restaurants. But whether that translated to more sales is not known because of the three-tier distribution system where the winery sells to distributors who then sell to retailers who, in turn, sell to consumers.

"If the wine shops see more sales, I'll probably never know why," she said.

Operators of the Walla Walla wineries that have most recently been featured at presidential events say they receive personal visits from Daniel Shanks, who has managed the wine selection since the Clinton administration. He has toured various Walla Walla wineries and been through tastings.

But when he makes a purchase, the operators aren't sure at the time for what event the wine is destined. They're typically notified shortly ahead of the event.

Whether this particular dinner will benefit Leonetti Cellar is even more complicated to determine. The winery started by Gary and Nancy Figgins as Walla Walla's first in 1977 and that now continues under the operation of their children, President and Winemaking Director Chris Figgins and Amy Figgins, is already known for selling out its annual production. Demand for its limited quantities is so great it has a three- to four-year wait for those trying to tap its annual allocation list.

They've already received emails of congratulations from industry peers. Just having the wine selected for the dinner is a reward, Heidi Figgins said.

"Chris and his parents never thought they would ever have their wine served at the White House," she said.

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