J. Wilkes wines have been featured twice in the last two weeks (May. 2016) at the State Department in Washington DC. Two weeks ago, our 2012 Chardonnay (92 points Wine Enthusiast) was featured at a Caribbean Leaders Energy Summit, and on Friday the 13th (!), luck was on our side when the leaders of the 5 Nordic Countries: Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway were treated to a luncheon orchestrated by Chef Jason Larkin (State Department) and Chef Marcus Samuelsson. The luncheon was hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry and his wife Mrs. Heinz Kerry. The Prime Ministers or Presidents, as well as their fair-haired entourages, were all in attendance. Michael Phillips (Sales Manager who closed the deal with the State Dept.) and I (winemaker, brand ambassador) were invited to personally attend by State Dept. Chef Jason Larkin, and the Miller family who owns J. Wilkes were kind enough to cover the costs of a swiftly conceived trip to represent Santa Maria, Santa Barbara County and California winemakers at this amazing event.
My goal in this blog post is to share my personal experience of attending this event as a private citizen, and to share my excitement in being able to participate in a State Department event in a historic building. In short, it was extraordinary. I also include a speech I prepared for the event, even though I was not asked to speak.
Friday, May 13th 2016: Michael Phillips (the East Coast Brand Sales Manager for J. Wilkes and all Turn Key/Rancho Tequsquet Wines) and I left the Gaylord Resort in Virginia for Washington DC at 9:30 a.m., dressed as instructed in business attire (I even wore a brand new suit!). After a proper coffee at La Colombe in DC and a long drive past most of the famous sights in our national’s Capital, we parked and were among the first to arrive at the State Department’s main entrance. The rain began to fall heavily as we walked through DC, and we took a few photos of some famous buildings and the Nordic flags that were prominently displayed throughout the Capital.
I have to admit that security was amazingly professional but also friendly and more permissive than I would have expected. I strongly believed that my phone would live in a special drawer for the duration of the event, but we were allowed to keep our phones and were never instructed on what we could or couldn’t photograph or video. So we tried to capture as much as we could while still using our actual senses to drink in the experience.
The photo above was after we went through the official security area, were searched and metal-detected, patted down and our ID’s were checked and double checked. We were among the very first folks to arrive and be admitted into the State Dept lobby, and the folks that did arrive soon after were more than happy to strike up conversations. It was quickly evident that we were going to be among very important personages. Our first conversation was initiated by Barry White–not the singer, but the former Ambassador to Norway, who was amazingly friendly and gave us some insight into the event, what to expect at the lunch and some Nordic history. The State Dept. Honor Guard prepped the five flags that would have to be quickly swapped and the Army string band tuned their instruments in preparation to play each of the national Anthems as the PM’s and Presidents arrived in their motorcades. While Michael chatted with Lars Petersson, president/CEO of IKEA, I chatted with two lovely lawyers that worked closely with John Kerry on his Presidential bid and were close friends of the Secretary of State and his family. One of the best parts of being a winemaker is that folks that are very used to attending elite social/political events find us fascinating, because everyone else is a lawyer, politician, or a VIP that would rarely ferment produce and bottle it. I also chatted with a full-dress uniform Lieutenant Colonel of Finland, who was very complimentary of the wine.
So if you’re wondering if it’s hard to get a drink at these events, the answer is definitely no. Once we received our special pins and second security check we were escorted up an elevator to the top floor of the State Department where staff were waiting with delicious nibbles (pickled shrimp, coffee-crusted filet mignon, smoked salmon with dill and creme frais) and offers of J. Wilkes Pinot Noir 2013, domestic CA sparkling wine, Sauvignon Blanc or a wonderful gin cocktail for the reception. The game was afoot! The rain stopped and we were all allowed to go out on the top-floor balcony of the State Department and look out on an amazing view of the Capital.
There were lots of wonderful rooms and niches we were allowed to explore and wander that were filled with amazing artifacts, china from previous administrations and famous/infamous events–I felt like I was in a Museum of American History that was staffed with dozens of folks offering me drinks and tasty nibbles.
Wes poses next to some very historic china, I believe this was some 19th Century stuff used at State dinners.
So we took some pics, drank some Pinot Noir, looked over the freshly-rinsed views of a soggy Washington DC and chatted with Ambassadors, lawyers, CEO’s and dignitaries. Not surprisingly, I had the longest hair of any male present and probably the longest non-blonde hair of any attendee! After 30-45 minutes of sipping, chatting and gawking, we were asked to sit in the (300?) person Benjamin Franklin Room, and Secretary of State Kerry led the delegations in to their seats.
We were welcomed by Secretary Kerry, who introduced each leader in turn. Each made a short 2-3 minute speech focusing on cooperation, the environment, stopping terrorism and then each proposed a toast–staff at the ready with more glasses of 2014 J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc, which had now become the literal lubrication in the Nordic/US Diplomatic world. The toasts were so plentiful that even the last few Prime Ministers/Presidents made light of the fact that getting back to work after the lunch would be much more productive and social due to the wine. I smiled, of course.
Here’s a shot of the leaders toasting peace, cooperation, environmental sustainability and friendship with J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc, which was likely the proudest moment for the brand and made me so proud to represent this wine grown by Chris Hammel and his crew, made by Vidal Perez and inspired by Jefferson Wilkes.
Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t couch this moment in ancient wine history. I had this speech written out in my suit pocket just in case I was asked to give a one minute speech at this point, this is what i would have said (in perfect Swedish of course!):
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Delegates, Dignitaries and all the rest of you stunning blonde people and ex-Vikings:
Wine has always been the engine of democracy. Since the 5th century BCE, the Athenians defined political conversations at the Symposia, formalized drinking parties that led to the development of both philosophy and democracy–which we echo today with the leaders of the five Nordic countries. In our personal lives wine keeps those we love at table for an extra hour every day, to guarantee we spend a little time away from technology, our phones and tablets, so we can make eye contact, have a meaningful dialog, and stay personally connected in a world that is increasingly connected by wifi, and less connected by true human proximity and honest personal moments.
“Wine, properly used, reminds us that every moment can be elevated and improved–and while being drunk (in my estimation) exhibits a lack of character, a glass or two of wine (even at lunch) is a European tradition that lightens the mood, makes laughter and friendship seem intrinsic to any occasion, and has the added bonus of making our lunch taste better with every bite. Wine is hope, wine is delicious, and I have great faith that the delicious wines we have brought from Santa Maria Valley, California will play a small but important role in cementing friendships between the United States and our good friends from Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Norway.
“Thanks for having Michael and I here today and I would also like to raise to toast to Vidal Perez who guided the craft of this wine, the hardworking vineyard workers and cellar staff that worked so hard to make these wines so delicious. We are all part of the American Dream–from the elegant table set for us by Chefs Samuelsson and Larkin’s team to the hard-working farm workers that grew and picked these wines for our enjoyment. From a horn of mead in Valhalla to a gold-rimmed glass of Pinot Blanc, the greatest occasions of our cultures include a delicious sip of fermented beverage–a reminder this world can be a better place and we can love and respect our friends and family with great intensity.
OK, maybe it would have been two minutes. I wasn’t asked to speak, but Secretary Kerry did give me a signed menu that included: “Wonderful Wines!” This menu will be framed in the Los Olivos Tasting room that we hope to have opened by Father’s Day! Perhaps the greatest treasure in my life after my lovely wife, Chanda.
The Spring Salad with melon and charcuterie was deliciously matched with the crisp Pinot Blanc and the salmon was delicious, even though my usual rule is that i only eat salmon between Seattle and Portland. The menu also gave Jefferson Wilkes some love (I love that they used his entire name, giving the brand a wonderfully US State Department/Presidential vibe), which can be seen below.
Like any great event, the lunch was over before I checked my watch. Kerry and the delegates went to meet with President Obama to do their work under the influence of Pinot and doughnuts.
After the event, Michael and I found another La Colombe coffee house and did a post-mortem, combined the connections/business cards we collected and sent out some emails, texts, thank you’s, and caught up with our regular jobs as sellers of wine. We also snapped this shot on the streets of DC before heading over to Charlie Palmer’s Steak to celebrate a great event with State Dept. Chef Jason Larkin and his husband Michael:
Dinner at Charlie Palmer’s was a great way to decompress–the food was amazing, the wines were insane (thanks to the Michaels), and we closed the restaurant down. There were two strong emotional moments at dinner–one was that hundreds of police and law enforcement officers were outside the ever-present windows of the restaurant marching to the Law Enforcement Memorial to remember the 52 fallen members of their fraternity last year:
And at a table adjacent to ours, a couple of 30-somethings had way too much to drink and they were yelling and almost having a food fight, tossing rolls across the table and basically being drunk idiots. In a moment of relative quiet, I said, loud enough for most of the restaurant to hear: “That’s cute….I remember when I had my first beer!” and the tables around us laughed cathartically, and I think the idiots got the idea that they were embarrassing themselves and were about to be kicked out. I watched carefully for rolls flying my way until the party stumbled out minutes after.
Some wines and dishes that made the cut at our wonderful meal with Chef Larkin, Michael Phillips and new friends (and a few embarrassed drunkards and their appalled wives):
We made it back to our hotel just before 1:00 am, actually stopping at one last account (Succotash, yum!) to drop off a sample bottle of our Chardonnay for their wine buyer. As I finally collapsed into bed, realizing my alarm was going to sound in 2.5 hours to get me on a shuttle to Dulles at 4:45 am, I had that satisfying professional moment that there was nothing more I could have accomplished on this wonderful rainy, then sunny, day on the Beltway. Except I could have given my speech. But at least I embarrassed a group of drunk idiots into relative silence with the same idea: that wine illuminates our true nature: be it a kind, peaceful human or a jerk that has no consideration for a restaurant filled with people that were trying to enjoy the ritual of proper table.
From Your Ambassador of Santa Maria Wines: