Wining and Dining in Adirondack Luxury

Photo by William M. Dowd

LAKE GEORGE, NY -- The topography around Lake George masks as much as it reveals.

Once past the fetching garishness of Lake George Village heading toward Bolton Landing on Route 9N -- the winding, tree-lined road locally known as Lake Shore Drive, you'll find a hodgepodge of log cabin guest colonies, Adirondack-style lodges and private homes existing cheek-by-jowl.

They are the obvious. But down the hills that slope to the exquisite lake are several former mansions converted over the years to guest lodging, the remnants of a level of luxury once commonly referred to here as Millionaire's Row.

Take the Queen Anne-style stone structure built in 1898 for Brooklyn lawyer Edward Morse Shepard as a lakeside vacation retreat. Once patrons navigate down a steep, winding drive, the formerly hidden three-story edifice looms into view.

This is the Inn at Erlowest.

It has gone by various names bestowed by various owners -- Erlowest, Leffingwell Palace, Sunset Castle and back to Erlowest when it came under the ownership of David and Cheryl Kenny last summer.

There are many gems here, from rolling lawns to a lakeview veranda to a library-style bar and four dining rooms.

Those rooms are studies in elegance -- coffered ceilings, rich draperies, small avian sculptures on the casement window sills and sparkling Spiegelau glassware on the tables.

But it is what goes on in the kitchen under chef Matthew Secich that makes Erlowest a wonder.

Secich is an eclectic Ohioan whose background includes time as a college lacrosse player and a U.S. Army cavalry scout as well as a student and a chef at various stops in the United States, France and England. Don't try to pigeonhole his style. He works on whim and the availability of local food supplies.

"In the kitchen," he says, "we use no recipes. I draw a picture and we create a new dish."

There are several ways of seeing those creations: two separate seven-course tasting menus ($79 per person) and an a la carte list, all of which change daily, or a special session in The Chef's Table Room adjacent to the kitchen where Secich gives vent to his creative flow through 8 to 12 courses ($129 per person).

Constant Companion and I had selected the vegetable tasting menu (the a la carte menu and the grand tasting include meat and fish items), with a $55 wine pairing option.

Erlowest's 264-label wine list contains a wide selection that runs the gamut in price and vintage from a 1961 Chateau Margaux ($2,770) to a 2002 Houchart Cotes de Provence ($20). Between those extremes are nearly 100 labels priced below $100.

Even though tastings allow for only small amounts of wine, in this case the add-on is worth the experience. Chef Secich and his staff have done an exemplary job in marrying their produce with excellent vintages.

After an amuse bouche of julienned Gorgonzola and apple and diced shallot, we were on to the seven tiny tastings, each exquisitely arranged on different shaped platters and serving pieces, each with a taste of its own wine.

A velvety chilled pea soup was dotted with a small scoop of chocolate mint ice cream -- not the ice cream store flavoring, but the chocolate mint herb -- and paired with a cleansing, nonvintage Gaston-Chiquet brut champagne.

Vegetables a la Provencal avoided the cliche tomato-garlic-oregano combination, thanks to the inclusion of licorice-like fennel and a taste of a sweet 2003 Domaine Pastou Sancerre from France's Loire Valley.

Our third course was an elegant arrangement of miniscule wild strawberries and reed-slender wild asparagus shoots with a balsamic drizzle, abetted by a crisp 2003 Olivier Leflaive St. Aubin 1er Cru white Burgundy.

The second portion of the meal was heartier, with rich, full-bodied wines that would go just as well with meat dishes.

A quartet of fingerling potatoes was roasted in salt, split and stuffed with Reblochon -- a French cheese made from whole, unpasteurized milk -- then dabbed with wilted spinach. It was paired with a 2000 La Braccesca Montepulciano, carrying red fruit and licorice notes.

Then came a trio of savory mushroom mixes that obviated any need for meat, the tender chanterelles, trumpet royals and mousserons paired with an inky-red Mas de Gourgonnier Reserve Les Baux de Provence, powerful with black cherry notes.

A cleansing finish came from two elements: a salad of spring baby lettuces with Blue Ledge chevre and a vaguely, but pleasingly, astringent 2001 Domaine Jean-Luc Dubois Clos Margot white Burgundy; then, a strawberry soup dotted with a touch of fiddlehead fern ice cream and joined by a 2003 La Spinetta Moscato d'Asti, a low-alcohol little bubbly that completed the beverage circle.

Secich is a clever kitchen artist with a young staff who may not know it, but they are getting the training of a lifetime.

Since this report was written, Secich resigned from Erlowest to venture elsewhere. He has been succeeded by his very capable No. 2, Ray Bohmer, who continues the Secich-style menu.

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Experiencing Abundance in Napa

NAPA, CA -- To the outsider, the Napa Valley image is wall-to-wall grapes. To anyone traversing the valley on Route 29 or the parallel Silverado Trail, that is merely part of the inventory.

The moderate climate, affected by low mountains on either side and by the narrow Napa River that meanders through the cleft, nurtures brilliant clumps of lilies, oleander and roses, as well as stands of camphor, valley oak, cedar, magnolia and olive trees.

Despite its relatively diminutive size -- 30 miles long and one to five miles wide -- the Napa Valley's undulating topography creates a series of microclimates. Temperatures can differ by 10 or more degrees from one end to the other.

Swaths of browned-out vegetation form the floor of the woods and fields, in marked contrast to the deep blue-greens and brilliant emeralds of the numerous copses of trees dotting the landscape from this little city at the valley's southern edge to the village of Calistoga and its mineral and mud baths up north.

In February and March, the valley gets its share of precipitation. In summer and early autumn, rain is so rare the natives can tell you on what day in what year they last recall seeing a downpour.

"It was five years ago, on Aug. 16 ... No, it was on the 15th," the noted wine writer Dan Berger told a couple of visitors over breakfast one day. "Just enough to really be a pain."

Clever viniculture methods and irrigation systems have nevertheless made this spot an hour's drive northeast of San Francisco arguably America's premier wine producing area.

Such popular names as Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Stags Leap, Louis Martini, Chimney Rock, Franciscan, Coppola, Domaine Chandon and Sterling are among the 200 wineries in operation today, marked by their distinctive main-building architecture that ranges from Victorian farmhouse to French chateau to Tuscan villa to the "Star Wars" look of Mondavi's Opus One operation across the road from its main fields.

The valley's growing tourist popularity has fueled the rebirth of Napa, the anchor city of 53,000, and made the region home to such hospitality industry facilities as the Culinary Institute of America's West Coast branch, opened in 1995 in the former Greystone Cellars complex near the village of St. Helena.

Perhaps the most unusual facility in the valley, however, is something called COPIA, named for the Roman goddess of abundance who carried a cornucopia, the horn of plenty. The capitalization of its name serves to underscore that.

COPIA's subtitle is "The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts." It's a not-for-profit cultural center and museum that has been open to the public less than two years. But, it got its start in 1988 when the legendary vintner Robert Mondavi and other Napa community leaders began kicking around the idea of a place to honor and explore the culinary and wine- making arts.

In 1996, Mondavi donated a 12-acre parcel of land in the city of Napa plus $20 million of the $55 million startup funding. The next year, Peggy Loar, who had been president of the United States International Council of Museums, was hired as director and began putting together her staff.

COPIA includes sprawling herb, flower and tree gardens, as well as several restaurants in the 80,000-square-foot building on the banks of an oxbow bend in the Napa River.

Daphne L. Derven, a native of Schenectady, NY, and a graduate of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, is the curator of food and assistant director for programs.

"We're a non-collecting museum," she said, "and that keeps us on our toes to continually come up with new ways to educate and entertain our visitors.

"We've had showings of extensive collections of wine glasses over the years, for example, and right now we have 'Eating and Drinking in Splendor,' a collection of Georgian silver tableware and artifacts on display through the end of September."

Derven spent several decades as an archeologist in the field, with a particular interest in the impact of food on culture and vice-versa. Her experience is put to use in helping create the displays and programs at COPIA.

"It's a wonderful way of blending my years in the field with my institutional interests to help the public enjoy a visit," she said.

In addition to exhibition and event space, the center, open year-round, has many clever ways of appealing to visitors of all ages. The programs, guests and styles of entertainment are geared toward virtually any demographic group.

Formal or self-guided walking tours in the extensive herb and vegetable gardens -- home to an amazing 100 kinds of tomatoes and 40 kinds of lavender, for example -- show how the institution helps keep heirloom plant species alive.

Celebrity appearnces for book signings and demonstrations are commonplace, most recently from the likes of famed chef Jacques Pepin, TV's "Naked Chef" Jamie Oliver, and the iconic Julia Child, for whom one of the public restaurants here is named.

A fair-weather outdoor concert series offers music from salsa to West African to zydeco to New Age. Films in the "Friday Night Flicks" series range from French comedies to war zone documentaries to Tunisian belly dancing.

Wine tastings, beer tastings, food sampling and open displays that offer foodstuffs to sniff, feel and look at help explain why people's reactions to the same substances vary wildly.

COPIA may be in the heart of California wine country, but its venue is the world. Many visitors take full advantage of being plopped down in the middle of this temple dedicated to the senses.

A long, winding staircase leads from the first-floor atrium space to a floor divided among a formal exhibition of pre-Christianity wine vessels from Iran, an open- space display of turn-of-the-20th Century advertising artwork extolling the virtues of California products, and -- the most popular of all -- a large walled-off area called "Forks In the Road: Food, Wine and the American Table."

That's where kids and adults alike tend to flock when they're not involved in some formal program, lecture or film. It's a hands-on area replete with exhibits of cooking vessels, short films, electronic quiz stations sure to please youngsters reared on Xboxes, even a film loop splicing together famous movie mealtime scenes.

Want to hear oral histories of ethnic food in America, cooking for the military, making wine at home? Interested in the rise of convenience foods? It's all here. Visitors also can hear classic food songs, test their sense of smell, try to identify strange kitchen gadgets. They also can contribute their own thoughts on current topics in food, or share food-related stories which will be recorded.

Curious which states have wineries? They all do, now, and an interactive display lets you select which ones you want to know about.

The one trait all humans share is the need for food and drink. At COPIA, its history and its present are celebrated and experienced, going well beyond the struggle for survival to the exultation of the senses.


Official COPIA site

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In Vino Veritas, And Advice

If you find it intimidating to talk to the wine experts at certain wine shops and restaurants, you may eventually be able to ignore them and go right to the horse's mouth. Well, the bottle's mouth is more like it.

Reuters news service tells us of a new Italian company that plans to unveil later this year a microchip-embedded bottle that will tell would-be consumer everything they need to know about what's inside -- lineage, pricing, food pairing, etc.

Company owner Daniele Barontini said the chip is activated by a device about the size of a cigarette pack and "it could tell you ... everything you'd hear from a sommelier."

On the Book Shelf -- Carb-conscious drinkers may want to check out a new book called "The Low-Carb Bartender: Carb Counts for Beer, Wine, Mixed Drinks and More" (Adams Media, $9.95). We'll save you the money if you only want to know the bottom line: Virtually all distilled beverages have zero carbs, or close to it.

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Jim Beam Wines & Other Notes

Consumers certainly aren't used to thinking "Jim Beam" when they think about wine. That, however is going to change.

Jim Beam Brands Worldwide (JBB) has named Bill Newlands head of its U.S. wine business which will be greatly expanded following the completion of the acquisition of Allied Domecq’s U.S. wine operations from Pernod Ricard. Ricard is taking over all aspects of Allied Domecq, which will go out of existence.

The move is a natural, since Newlands currently runs Allied Domecq USA Wines, which will bring such brands as Clos du Bois, Buena Vista, William Hill and Gary Farrell to the JBB fold. JBB already has a wine division, Peak Wines International, which has the Geyser Peak, Canyon Road and Wild Horse brands.

Horse Heaven Appellation -- The State of Washington has created its seventh vinicultural area, commonly known as an appellation. It's on the north slope of the Columbia River, locally known as Horse Heaven Hills. Washington is the nation's second-largest producer of wine, after California. It has more than 300 wineries, 300 wine grape growers and 30,000 vineyard acres. The Horse Heaven Hills is located above the only sea-level passage through the Cascade Mountains.

Too Much of a Good Thing -- A bumper crop usually is cause for celebration in the agricultural world. Not in France. Its wine industry has had trouble marketing all of last year's wine. Now, grape growers are predicting a bumper crop that will put more pressure on winemakers to sell their products.

On the Bookshelf -- Wine Adventure, billed as the first wine magazine targeting women, now is on store shelves. It features articles on wine destinations, food and wine pairings, lifestyle, wine and cooking schools, and wine paraphrnelia. Michele Ostrove is the editor of the bi-monthly publication.

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U.S. wine market comes of age

Photo by William M. Dowd

The American wine-buying public has, in large measure, matured beyond the "If it's French, it must be good" and "To be good, it must be expensive" mind-set.

It was merely a matter of time. The veritable flood of wine pouring forth today from an ever-increasing number of foreign producers makes comparisons inevitable. Now, buying choices often are made on nuances, not old strictures like red-with-meat, white-with-fish.

And as the old guard became outnumbered, wines from South America, South Africa and southeast Australia no longer are automatically rejected by the wine cognoscenti. Every variety from everywhere now gets a trial.

"Wine is slowly becoming part of American day-to-day life, rather than a special-occasion affair. And while we aren't yet at the point of stepping up to a hose, grass-roots acceptance is growing for 'boxed wines' or 'quality cask wines' as they are variously called," said Richard Kinssies, an instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy and director of the Seattle Wine School in Washington state.

Most industry sales figures for 2004 still are being compiled, but all indications are that they will surpass those of 2003, when U.S. wine consumption hit an all-time high. That year, according to the Adams Wine Handbook, consumption rose 5.2 percent to nearly three gallons per adult.

Americans drank a record 258.3 million 9-liter cases of wine in 2003. That extended a decade-long increase in all categories of wine, with the exception of wine coolers, which dropped off around 1990 and never regained their prior popularity.

The reverse may seem to be true in New York, in which all categories of alcoholic beverage sales by volume showed a drop in the seven-month period ending October 2004 compared with the same period a year earlier, according to Beverage Media magazine: still wines down 2.14 percent, sparkling wines down 0.96 percent, beer down 5.2 percent, liquor down 2.16 percent. However, more money is being spent than ever, so the drop-off in volume seems to indicate people are spending more for what they do purchase.

Nationwide, overall sales of imported wines -- up 11.3 percent in 2003 versus 2004, according to some early industry estimates -- have been outpacing domestics, up 3.4 percent. The domestic rise may not necessarily be a result of harder marketing pushes or better products. Availability is a big factor. Even though there now are wineries in every state, many foreign wine conglomerates have much greater production capacity. That and continual education of the consuming public -- through more wine coverage in newspapers, magazines and on TV lifestyle and food shows -- helps demystify wine and its complex jargon.

Prices for Australian and New Zealand wines, a glut on the lower-priced market with such ubiquitous brands as Yellow Tail, are down to the $10-or-less range on many bottles, so they're becoming the "house wine" in many homes. Chilean and Argentine wines are making more and more inroads as well, and the French, Italian, German and Spanish labels are struggling at certain price points here.

However, there are many exceptions to these general trends. At the Saratoga Wine Exchange in Saratoga Springs, NY, for example, California and New York wines were 1-2 in gross dollar sales last year, ranking ahead of French, Italian and Australian, in that order.

"We have a tendency to concentrate on higher-end wines, so even when the number of bottles sold goes down, revenue can go up," said owner Josh Hiebel. "You have to sell a lot of Yellow Tail to make up for a $500 bottle of rare collectible French wine."

Wine merchants rarely have to persuade customers these days to try something beyond the one-time French and German standards. Instead, they have to struggle to keep pace with the stunning array of possibilities to stay competitive.

So how does a wine seller wade through the available stock to find what might appeal to his or her customers?

"You educate your palate on a regular basis," said Craig Allen, owner of All Star Wine & Spirits in Latham, NY. "We just had a tasting of 600 wines up at Longfellows," a Saratoga Springs restaurant. "The number is staggering, but you're best off if you don't look at prices when you first taste. You have to get to know what a good cabernet or pinot or whatever might be. Once you can tell that in a blind tasting, then you can start figuring out what price range a particular wine will be worth to your customers."

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NY Breaks Ground for Wine Center

Photo by William M. Dowd

CANANDAIGUA, NY -- Call it Copia Lite if you like, but if the movers and shakers behind the New York Wine & Culinary Center project for which ground was broken on Aug. 10 are correct, you'll be comparing it to the Napa Valley, CA, food and wine institution before long.

The plan is to construct and open the center by early summer of 2006, an ambitious target for the $7 million project being financed by $2 million in state funding and the rest from various private funds. The center will be located on the shore of Canandaigua Lake and will serve as a gateway to the state's wine, food and agricultural areas.

Gov. George E. Pataki (at the center of the photo during the ceremonial groundbreaking), who recently announced he will not seek another term, was on hand for the event.

"From North Country apples to Long Island wine, the New York Wine and Culinary Center will be a celebration of New York's agriculture and its many offerings," he Pataki said. "We are proud to be a partner in this tremendous effort that will showcase New York's rich abundance of outstanding food and wine products and our agricultural heritage in this new state-of-the-art facility located right here in the heart of the Finger Lakes."

The major private backers are Constellation Brands, the locally0headquarterd company that is the world's largest manufacturer and distributor of alcoholic beverages; Wegman's Food Markets, a Western New York chain, and Rochester Institute of Technology's Hospitality and Service Management School.

The mission of the Center will be to foster knowledge in the wine, agriculture and culinary arts industries across New York State. To do so, the Center will offer hands-on courses in culinary science; interactive exhibits on New York State agriculture, foods and wines; demonstration space; and a live garden outside of the building.

The 15,000 square-foot facility will include a tasting room with a rotating selection of wines from New York's major regions (Niagara/Lake Erie, Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Long Island), a wine and tapas bar for light meals and wine-and-food pairings, a theater-style demonstration kitchen, a training kitchen for hands-on cooking classes, and industrial kitchens for credited culinary classes and corporate training. It also will house the offices of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.

Said state Agriculture Commissioner Nathan L. Rudgers, "New York is an agricultural powerhouse. So much of our present culture, achievements and local community development are derived from agriculture that it is important to educate and promote the importance of this industry. The Center will highlight our wine and agricultural products, agri-tourism and focus on developing value-added products."

Agriculture is one of New York's most vital industries, encompassing 25 percent of the state's landscape and generating more than $3.6 billion last year. It has 7.6 million acres of farmland with 36,000 farms and is the nation's third-largest wine-producing state after California and Oregon.

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