A New York State of Wine (and Food)

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Photograph Courtesy of Lake Placid Lodge
Photograph Courtesy of Lake Placid Lodge

So here I am, at the posh Lake Placid Lodge, in the middle of a five-course meal created by Christopher Bradley, executive sous chef at Gramercy Tavern, who was lured to the Adirondacks, along with chef Sandro Romano of the Modern, for one of the lodge’s spectacular Food & Wine weekends in the state’s most splendid natural surroundings.

Co-hosted by the Union Square Hospitality Group, the twice-a-year three-day gastro getaways offer a culinary and viniculture-steeped vacation on which guests who’ve paid $3,525 for the package, or $175 for dinner, rub elbows—and paddles, whisks and corkscrews—with some of the state’s more celebrated vintners and chefs.

I’m on the fourth course, succulent duck breast with quinoa and mustard greens, washing it down with a full-bodied, earthy 2007 Cabernet Franc from Hermann Wiemer Vineyards in the Finger Lakes.

Why don’t they do this every weekend? I think. Must be too much work to organize it all.

That fourth course comes on top of the braised monkfish served with black kale, merlot beans and pancetta, paired with a 2007 Wiemer Pinot Noir. And yes, I find room for the fifth course of roast pork loin and dates, served with a 2007 wine from Channing Daughters Winery dubbed “Sculpture Garden,” a smooth merlot blend. For dessert I tuck in to the Tarte Tatin and sip the Channing Daughters 2004 “Pazzo,” a unique merlot that has been aged in the barrel for five years like a Madeira wine, exposed to the elements and fortified to 18 percent alcohol content.

“Pazzo” means “crazy” in Italian, explains Chris Tracy, the prominent Channing Daughters winemaker who is eating at my table along with his wife, Allison Dubin, the winery’s general manager, and Jean-Luc Le Dû, the genial, unpretentious French sommelier (formerly of the restaurant Daniel and now proprietor of Le Dû’s Wines in the West Village). Le Dû picked the vintages for the weekend, all from Channing Daughters or Hermann Wiemer. By the end of the dinner, I am as mellow and perhaps almost as crazed (in a nice way) as the wine. And that pretty much applies to the entire experience at the Lake Placid Lodge.

The wine and food are superb, but the setting is nearly as important, providing a certain New York State terroir—the untranslatable French word encompassing the soil, air, sun, rain and other unique growing conditions that produce particular grapes and wines, or overall experiences—to those of us who gathered to gormandize, imbibe, socialize and explore. We canoe and kayak (early risers can paddle to an island for a killer breakfast cooked over an open fire), hike the trails on a guided nature walk, learn fly-tying, attend a scotch tasting, participate in a fresh pasta class or just enjoy garden-to-glass cocktails relaxing in (what else?) Adirondack chairs.

Originally built in 1882 on the pristine shores of Lake Placid, across from imposing Whiteface Mountain, the lodge burned down in 2005 and has been replaced with a more fire-resistant version that retains the feel of Victorian rustic elegance, with work by local artisans such as mason David Williams, who built many of the 54 stone fireplaces spreading warmth throughout the fourstory building. Guests stay in the lodge or one of the cabins that dot the shore; both feature handmade feather mattresses tucked into frames with bark-on limbs under canopies of twigs.

The Food & Wine weekends offer special ag outings, like visits to the famed North Country School and its working farm, the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, and the famous Maple Sugar Works nearby. The lodge also brings in local ingredients—and the farmers who grow them. I was attracted to the strutting turkeys and chickens brought by Peter Zelinski, who raises them—with help from his wife and nine children—at Lake Meadow and Mountain Farm in Moriah, New York.

Kristin Kimball came from her farm in Essex to read from her new book, The Dirty Life, which in dramatic, novelistic fashion, plots how the Harvard grad and former journalist left her Manhattan life to start a farm with a man she had interviewed for a story and eventually married. They now raise vegetables on their 500-acre farm in Lake Champlain, using draft horses and living “outside the river of consumption.” Lake Placid Lodge lets Manhattanites live out a version of this fantasy for a few days, albeit with more of a lake of luxury: cocktail classes, feather beds and an incredible meal every few hours.

For those who can tear themselves away, there’s plenty to do nearby: explore the shops and galleries along Main Street in Lake Placid village, tour abolitionist John Brown’s homestead, or take the Cloudsplitter Gondola (or drive) to the top of Whiteface Mountain, which offers stunning views of the biggest vertical drop in the East and the Olympic ski-jumping complex.

But wineaux won’t want to leave the lodge, where sommelier Chris Lacombe stocks the cellar with some 8,000 bottles featuring 800 different labels—about 10 percent of which come from New York State; the oldest in the collection, a 1918 Château Margaux, would cost you a mere $3,000. In their rooms, arriving guests find a small bottle of cabernet franc by Long Island’s revered Wölffer Estate.

The lodge offers enlightened eaters a fantasy getaway any time of year, but these curated culinary weekends provide unique experiences, like mingling with the chefs as they mince herbs, and tasting wines made by the very people swirling and swilling with you.

For instance, I can now count Chris Tracy, the winemaker at Long Island’s vaunted Channing Daughters, and Oskar Bynke, estate manager for Hermann Wiemer Vineyard, as friends.

Late Saturday afternoon, we convened for a tasting session in the lodge wine cellar, a vaulted brick room that doubles as a private dining room. Tracy poured a Channing Daughters 2008 Tocai Friulano, a white grape native to northeast Italy but clearly at home on Long Island’s East End. To make it, he mixed grapes fermented in both steel and oak barrels, which produce a dry white with citrus and almond notes and a touch of the salty ocean— particularly good, Chris says, with prosciutto and cheese. As with all Channing Daughters wines, the grapes were hand-harvested and crushed under feet—some quite small, belonging to Chris and Allison’s 3-year-old son, Cooper.

We also sampled Envelope, Tracy’s innovative blend of chardonnay, gewürztraminer and malvasia bianca, all white grapes that were stomped and fermented with skins intact, which gives the wine a golden-orange glow.

“This is how wine was made for thousands of years,” Tracy explains as we savor it. “It is the artisanal, ancient method.” He says people either love it or hate it. With its smooth, full body and complex carameled fruit notes, I was squarely in the former category.

Next we sampled wines from Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard of the Finger Lakes region where, explained estate manager Oskar Bynke, the retreating glaciers carved north-south valleys to create Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, over 600 and 400 feet deep, respectively. Even in the region’s long winters, the deep waters don’t freeze, thus providing a moderate climate for grapes growing on the gravelly well-drained soil. In the 1960s European immigrants Konstantin Frank (Vinifera Wine Cellars) and Hermann Wiemer began making great whites there. Today the region boasts over 100 vineyards.

I’d met Oskar on my first night at the lodge when he sat next to me during the barbecue bash. He told me that he’d left his native Sweden to study agronomy at Cornell, then worked in the wine business in Manhattan before joining Hermann Wiemer on his 75- acre vineyard. He’d brought his fiancée, Lydiah Bosire, who works in public health. They plan to marry this year in her native Kenya.

Oskar began by pouring a 2006 cuvée brut, a sparkling wine made with equal parts chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, harvested early to ensure a lean, crisp taste with relatively low sugar, then aged on the lees (the sediment from fermentation) for a year and a half. It was a lively and elegant.

Next we sampled a 2008 riesling, a bone-dry vintage for which the Finger Lakes are famous. A cool year with timely rainfall, 2008 produced a particularly good crop. Fermented in small lots, this wine is balanced, crisp and aromatic, with a hint of citrus and lime and a natural acidity. As Jean-Luc Le Dû observed, riesling is just beginning to be properly recognized in wine circles, and its bright fruitiness mellows well when aged. “It really gives you an aha moment when you taste a great 20-year-old bottle of riesling—there’s so much complexity.”

Last we sipped Wiemer’s 2009 gewürztraminer, grown on one of the oldest plantings in the region. A cool, prolonged growing season allowed a slow ripening and a late harvest, yielding a spicy, almost musky white wine. It’s no surprise that for the last two years Wiemer has been named one of the top 100 wineries by Wine & Spirits magazine. These wines would be wonderful in any setting, but enjoying them in the company of the men who grow the grapes from which they are made was worth the long, beautiful drive.

Le Dû concluded the session by praising Wiemer and Channing Daughters as “the epitome of quality in New York State wines.” Don’t forget, he said, “The truth is in the bottle.”

To which a fellow guest added, “I’ll drink to that.”

Lake Placid Lodge’s 2011 Food & Wine weekends take place May 5–8 and October 20–23. www.lakeplacidlodge.com .

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