French Wine at White House Luncheon Riles California Vintners : Reagan Stirs Tempest in a Bottle

Times Staff Writer

In any other year, it would have been a sign of impeccable taste for President Reagan to whet the palates of his luncheon guests with a 1970 Gevrey Chambertin, a good French Burgundy that sells in most liquor stores for $25 to $40 a bottle.

But not, perhaps, this year, when California wine makers and other U.S. businesses are demanding federal protection against lower-priced foreign goods that have been flooding the U.S. market.

The issue bubbled to the surface after Reagan and several staff members gave a White House luncheon Monday for 80 editors and broadcasters. Guests dined on a three-course meal, featuring veal tenderloin with mushrooms, and topped it off with the 15-year-old Burgundy.


Spokesmen for the President and First Lady Nancy Reagan--whose office selects many of the menus for official events--said Tuesday that the White House usually serves California wines and suggested that critics of this week’s selection were popping their corks over nothing.

“It (the French wine) wasn’t purchased just for that luncheon--it’s been in the White House cellar for 10 years or so . . . . It just happened to fit yesterday’s menu and accommodate the number of guests,” Elaine Krispin, Mrs. Reagan’s press secretary, explained.

Symbolism Deplored

Rusty Brashear, a presidential spokesman, said: “The facts speak for themselves. The American people would have been more concerned if we had thrown the wine out, then incurred an even greater debt by buying more wine.”

However, a variety of Democratic lawmakers and wine industry spokesmen deplored the symbolism--and timing--of Reagan’s choice.

Serving the French wine was “a foolish thing to do . . . a terrible example to set, especially since we in California make better wine than they do abroad,” complained California Rep. Douglas H. Bosco (D-Occidental), whose district includes the Sonoma wine country.

Democrats have been trying to capitalize on the volatile trade issue in recent weeks, especially because Reagan opposes protectionist legislation. The controversy has dominated Congress’ attention, with more than 500 pieces of legislation on foreign trade and protection pending.

The issue is of particular concern to California wine makers, who contend that the makers of inexpensive French, German and Italian wines are “dumping” vast quantities of their goods on the American market, cutting deeply into the profits of U.S. vintners.

“I’d like to see our national leaders in the Administration and Congress take the leadership role in promoting the consumption of American products. . . . I don’t know of any reason why they should have had to cater to them with fine European wine in that instance,” said John Weidert, head of a Fresno grape growers’ organization seeking federal protection for the California wine industry.

As the battle of the Burgundy spread Tuesday, Republican allies sprang to Reagan’s defense.

“The White House has been instrumental in introducing California wines to an East Coast market that previously may have been familiar only with foreign wines,” Linda Royster, a spokesman for Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), said.

Meanwhile, Joseph A. Vicario, an attorney representing the California wine industry, cautioned that both sides may be missing the point.

Influx of Cheap Wines

California vintners and grape growers are chiefly concerned about the influx of cheap imported wines--not the expensive kind that was served at the White House luncheon, Vicario said.

“Our complaint is not directed toward the higher-priced imports, because we believe California (wines) are more than able to hold their own, to compete with those wines,” he said, adding, “If they were pouring Riunite on ice (at the White House), I’d have more of a problem with what happened.”