On November 19, 1985, the The Geneva summit brought together President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time. The leaders had met in Geneva to ease tensions, draft a road map for future peace and diplomacy and, as Reagan suggested, to consider an alliance in the event of an alien invasion.
They had also gathered to eat. The day before November 20, a little lobster soufflé, Périgourdine chicken supreme, and an endive salad with cheese mousse and avocado preceded the pear sorbet, petit fours and coffee. Servers walked around the Summit dining room pouring a 1983 Silverado Chardonnay, a 1974 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and, most notably, a 1982 Iron Horse Blanc de Blanc to accompany each course. Since then, every administration has poured Iron Horse at diplomatic events, making it an unofficial wine of American diplomacy.
Sonoma’s Iron Horse Vineyards, which only produced its first sparkling wine vintage in 1980, owes this diplomatic relationship to David Berkley, CEO of David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods in Sacramento, California. Berkley had known the Reagans since they were governor and first lady of California, and after Reagan became president in 1981, Berkley “became the unpaid wine adviser” to the White House, says Joy Sterling, owner and CEO of ‘Iron Horse Vineyards.
Reagan trusted Berkley’s taste, but it must have been a challenge to choose a wine that would also speak to Soviet strongmen. “(T)he first requirement was to ensure that the selected wine was complementary to the dish, but also something that could be meaningful to the event or the guest of honor,” Berkley said. The Sacramento Bee in September 2016 on his years of wine selection for the White House and the presidential summits like Geneva.
His wines selected for this summit evoked strength and adventure on the theme of the horse: jumping deer, metal mustangs and the Wild West. (The Cowboy, shoot-’em-up movie Silverado had been created earlier that year.) Berkley could not be reached for this story, but David Munksgard, the current Iron Horse winemaker, thinks the choice of the 1982 Iron Horse Blanc de Blanc for the Geneva Summit was a good one. Berkley, he explains, “chose a wine he thought would appeal to a Russian palate.”
Iron Horse’s Blanc de Blanc was, like most of their wines, a sparkling wine. Champagne had been a favorite of Russians since the Napoleonic Wars. Veuve Clicquot herself had cleverly incited the invading Russian soldiers to get drunk on her champagne. “Today they drink; tomorrow they will pay,” she reportedly said.
As she predicted, when those same soldiers returned home to Russia, so did the demand for French bubbles. “Tsars and tsarinas grew up with this style (of wine),” says Munksgard. Even after the Russian Revolution, when champagne imports were stopped, Stalin demanded the development of a state-produced sparkling wine (it was a lot sweeter than widow).
A photograph from the Geneva summit dinner shows Gorbachev, with a short, chunky flute in hand, toasting Regan across the table. “Thematically, (our wine) fits with the summit meeting,” Sterling says. Iron Horse Vineyards sits on the Russian River, a waterway named for 19th century Russian fur trappers working in Sonoma County, California.
Getting wine from Sonoma to Geneva, however, was quite the undertaking. After the vintage was approved by cabinet, the U.S. government instructed Iron Horse to ship the crates to an Air Force base in unmarked boxes.
Breaking bread and sharing a drink with others has great political and diplomatic value. According to Ambassador Rufus Gifford, President Biden’s chief of protocol, the choice of world leaders to dine together is a gesture of goodwill. “This human connection is enriched during a meal, where we share our food, our wine and our culture,” he says.
The Geneva Summit meal apparently succeeded in establishing a connection between Reagan and Gorbachev. The meeting – and perhaps the generous wine pours – did much to thaw relations between the two nations. Thereafter, Iron Horse occupied a specific niche on White House menus. His vintages would reappear, time and time again, as examples of fine, American-made sparkling wines.
Two years after the Geneva summit, on December 8, 1987, Reagan hosted a dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev at the White House. The dishes were accompanied by a 1984 Chardonnay from Jordan Vineyards, a Stag’s Leap Cabernet and a 1984 Iron Horse Brut Summit cuvée, named for the event.
Some wine bottles were even engraved with two gold eagles: the American version with arrows and an olive branch in the talons, and the Russian double-headed eagle. Summit Cuvée then became Iron Horse’s Russian River Cuvée. Made with a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, it is still served, sometimes, at White House state dinners as a toast wine.
Inside the Iron Horse Cellar, a framed letter hangs on the wall. “A TRADITION HOLDS!” wrote Gary J. Walters, chief usher at the White House in Sterling in 1994. Boris Yeltsin, the president of the new Russian Federation, had joined the Clintons at the White House for dinner on September 27, 1994. Already, “a tradition has been established. Since the beginning of the end of the Cold War, an Iron Horse wine has been served at every summit between the United States and Russia, formerly the USSR,” he wrote. “The (Demi Sec) has been very well received by the President and Mrs. Clinton and their guests, especially our Russian guests who like the ‘sweeter’ taste.
Iron Horse has also been featured on other occasions. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton wanted a wine to toast to the new millennium at the 1999 presidential New Year’s Eve party. The White House sent Daniel Shanks, the White House’s director of food and beverage to Clinton, to Iron Horse to find a sparkling wine celebration. Hours of tasting yielded the Millennium Cuvée and the White House ordered 100 cases.
Pairing good wine with good food wasn’t the only variable to consider in his role, Shanks explained in July 2021 during virtual interview for Wine speed. For example, the first wine of the evening – a white – was always poured in advance at these dinners to allow guests privacy and limit the number of employees in the dining room. Shanks often needed wines that could hold the temperature and handle schedule changes, especially since President Clinton, he explained, was late for everything.
Like a trusted steed, Iron Horse continues his work for the White House. In May, Iron Horse was served at Blair House, the president’s official guest residence for heads of state, when climate envoy John Kerry toasted the diplomatic corps in Washington DC. The wine in his glass was the 2019 Iron Hose Ocean Reserve, where a portion of the proceeds from each bottle are donated to organizations dedicated to preserving the oceans.
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