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UK Hocks Govt's Best Wines in Age of Austerity

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Last week, Reuters reported that "Britain's cost-cutting government plans to sell off some of its stock of fine wines to pay for cheaper bottles that will be offered to visiting dignitaries."

"I seriously considered abolishing the cellar, but all the evidence shows that we will save the taxpayer money by keeping the cellar and reforming it so that wine purchases are self-funded through sales," said foreign office minister Henry Bellingham. But, he added, "The cellar has been part of government functions for nearly a century and through these reforms it will provide value for money, accountability and will continue to offer hospitality to important guests from around the world."

While the money saved will be negligible (£500,000 by 2015), the downscaling of the official wine cellar -- 39,000 bottles with a total value between £900,000 and £2 million -- sends an important fiscal message during tight financial times.

Though at least one bottle has been an excellent investment for the taxpayers of Britain (a 1961 bottle of Chateau Latour bought for 47¢ and worth roughly $15,700, or $2,510 a glass), White House wine steward -- or "usher," in official parlance -- told Bloomberg reporter Elin McCoy in 2008 that an expensive quaff does not diplomacy make.

"A state dinner isn't about food and wine, it's bonding time," he said. "A country or issue is driving it, and the wine has to augment that."

The wines "augmenting" those issues raised at White House dinners are exclusively American, a policy instituted by Lyndon Johnson, Brian Dimarco, proprietor of New York City-based wine importing outfit The Barterhouse, tells me.

"When Gerald Ford was president, he actually served Michigan wines at state dinners," he says. (The Midwestern wine in question is a white by Tabor Hill.)

Of course, the French (who else?) have long understood the value a fine wine adds to the political process.

As Katherine Tallmadge explains in the Washington Diplomat, French officials "have recognized the importance of entertaining with fine food and wine, celebrating this as an integral, even critical, component of diplomacy."

She writes:

No other embassy in town is more effective at using culture and food to seduce visitors, introduce views and products, sell lifestyles and opinions, and quietly push policies to the powerful and influential.

Most critically, the embassy is engaged in intense private diplomacy which centers around a number of dinners and receptions at the residence. Here, VIP guests are ushered into the astonishing Tudor mansion, served a four – star meal for the ages, lubricated with rare and unusual French wines, and seduced by the full panoply of French culture and tradition.

Then, there are those wine aficionados in the foreign services who find ways to combine business and pleasure.

In the 1990s, Maltese Ambassador Mark Miceli-Farrugia founded Meridiana, which he describes as "the island's first world-class winery."

"Maltese wine basically promotes everything that is agricultural in Malta -- because even though we produce very little agriculture, whatever we produce is unbeatable in flavor," he told Jacob Comenetz, also of the Washington Diplomat.

Best of all, at a retail price of $16, the Brits can afford it too.
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