Posted: May 27, 2008 9:31am ETEvery year, a friend of mine nominates the top ten days of the summer. The criteria are pretty loose, but basically it has to be warm, but not too warm, sunny but some clouds are allowed, and of course, no rain any time during the day. Last Sunday here in the Northeast wasn’t just a contender for a top ten day, it may have already won the title for the Best Day of the Summer: mid-70s, not a cloud in the sky and a light breeze to keep the bugs down and moderate whatever warmth there was from becoming too much.
My friend Chuck, the owner of the R8 that I wrote about a few blogs ago, and I and our wives had planned a picnic more than two weeks ago. We were going to drive our cars (yes, another road trip in tandem in the R8 and the S5) up to one of the best-kept secrets in the New York area: Storm King Arts Center in Mountainville, New York, about 10 miles from West Point on the west side of the Hudson River. It is a 500-acre preserve given over to an outdoor sculpture museum. Some of the greatest sculpture artists of the 20th century are represented, and you can lay eyes on everything from several Alexander Calders, 13 works by David Smith, a granite sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, a specially commissioned Richard Serra, a Henry Moore and a mysteriously mesmerizing piece by Andy Goldsworthy called Storm King Wall, a 2,278 foot long stone wall. The sculptures are scattered around the grounds, which include sloping hills, wide meadows and tall trees framing the long promenades. It is truly a spectacular place.
We spent an hour walking around the property, which isn’t nearly enough, but by that point, we had worked up an appetite. There is a designated picnic area near the front parking area, but even though there were probably 60 people dining al fresco, there was no sense of being crowded. We picked out a place under a tree with an unobstructed view of Calder’s Arch. There literally wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we picnicked away.
Posted: May 19, 2008 12:57pm ETThere’s always a collective relief here when we finish up a tasting for one of our upcoming issues. I know most of you don’t understand this, but when you have to smoke for a living, it detracts from the great pleasure one normally gets from a cigar. I usually have a little ritual that I follow after I’ve finished up a tasting to offset some of the obligation we all feel here when we are involved in a tasting.
First of all, there is a short period after the tasting is over when we examine the scores. If there are huge discrepancies between tasters, I'll assign a cigar to be resmoked, sometimes even by two people, just to get a more accurate take on the cigar. As I’ve said many times, tastings are subjective exercises, and some days you just wake up and everything tastes funny. That’s why we do try to be fair to cigars and re-taste them if there are any serious discrepancies. You can be pretty certain that the cigars at the bottom range of a tasting, and at the top end, have all been re-tasted to be sure that the results are in harmony.
But that takes time. We manage our tastings so that there is rarely a break of more than three or four days between the end of one tasting, and the beginning of the next one. We try to get the tastings done a week before production starts, so we have time to do the re-tastes, and then produce the notes and averaged scores for publication. That means it pretty much is a never-ending routine of smoking and evaluating.
I do give myself at least one full day to engage in my special ritual. I always have a cigar set aside that I really want to smoke. Sometimes, it’s a contribution for an upcoming Connoisseur’s Corner, or sometimes it’s just one of my favorites from my home humidor. I wait until after the lunch hour and then I light up the cigar. There are no tasting sheets around (unless it’s a Connoisseur’s Corner cigar), and I don’t worry about how many cigars remain in my humidor to be smoked. There’s no worry about wondering if I have to smoke three or four more cigars that day, and I’m not evaluating the cigar for every minute distinction it might have.
Posted: May 5, 2008 9:27am ETThe day finally arrived--opening day at my country club. It wasn’t the best of weather on Saturday; the day dawned cold, cloudy and with light rain during the early holes. The weather didn’t really matter, however. It was just nice to be out on our newly renovated golf course (see the Jan/Feb Cigar Aficionado article Rebirth of a Classic) with all the machinery gone, and all the grass grown in. The course actually opened for play in late March, but there’s an special aura to the “official” opening day.
The reviews of the course are starting to come in. In a recent early season pro-am, with the top club professionals from the New York area teamed with members of their own clubs, the low round was even par. There were a lot of pros’ final scores that had 8s as the first number. The greens were fast, and just like before the renovation, there’s no forgiveness for mistakes.
I considered my smokes carefully for the day, but in the end, my cigar holder had Tatuajes, with a few years' humidor age on them, and a couple of Don Carlos Robustos. I never know what to expect in this Opening Day competition because the foursomes are put together by handicaps, and then you play a modified scramble with a best ball/low gross format. But I knew I was glad that I’d brought along cigars when it turned out two of the guys in my foursome were also members of the Grand Havana Room in New York City.
Unfortunately, the weather did interfere with my desire for a cigar, but finally on about our 12th hole of the day, I lit up a Tatuaje, and one of my partners chose a Don Carlos. I’m generally not a big fan of smoking while I play golf, but on Saturday, I thoroughly enjoyed the cigar, partly because it was so good, but partly because it was in celebration of the official opening of my summer golf season.
May you all hit ‘em straight, and keep it in the short grass.
Posted: Apr 17, 2008 12:25pm ETMemorable. I should write it in capital letters because Cigar Aficionado’s annual fundraiser for the Prostate Cancer Foundation was that, and a whole lot more. The black tie affair is my favorite cigar dinner every year, and last night just added to the event’s lore and history.
Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, announced that the original co-hosts couldn’t make it, so he had gone out and found a tribute act to replace the Blues Brothers. But the crowd figured out what was happening pretty quickly as the first throbbing beats of "Sweet Home Chicago" echoed across the pool room of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. The Blues Brothers, Brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) and the blood brother, Brother Zee (Jim Belushi) strutted down the stairs in their trademark black suits, black hats and black sunglasses. The co-hosts for this year’s dinner proceeded to play five songs. There was nowhere to dance, but the crowd was moving with the music.
After the performance, Mr. Shanken began the auction of mystery wines; people bid on the wines without knowing what they are because they are in brown paper bags. Some of the wines included a 1928 Chateau d'Yquem, a 1945 Latour, and a 1945 Gruaud Larose in magnum. The deal is that every purchaser of the wines must open them that evening for their table. So, the lucky five tables got some great wines for the night.
The total proceeds for the night reached $1 million. Prostate Cancer Foundation founder Michael Milken told the crowd that the dinner had helped save tens of thousands of lives since its inception because the research that had been made possible by the contributions was reducing the mortality rates among men in the United States and around the world. I’ll let Dave Savona give you all the details in his news story about the event.
Posted: Apr 14, 2008 10:55am ETWatching the Masters for a golfer is like taking in the Super Bowl for an NFL fan or the World Series for a baseball fanatic. I usually lounge in my den all afternoon on Masters Sunday, but this year, a buddy of mine had a better idea; we’d play 18 holes and then head to his house for a late lunch and a cigar. We were joined by another friend whose father had hosted each of us at Augusta National Golf Club on separate occasions.
We got a little more than we bargained for Sunday. We teed off in a brisk wind with gusts into the 20 mile an hour range. It was just like Augusta on Sunday, except it was about 25 degrees colder at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Westchester County. On the club’s signature par-3, 150-yard, 16th hole (see Rebirth of a Classic in the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Cigar Aficionado), my usual club of choice on the downhill hole is an eight or nine iron depending on the hole location. We all picked six-irons out of the bag and everyone was short. (I actually mistakenly pulled a nine-iron but skulled it and made the fringe…oh yeah, it was a good miss. If I’d gotten it up in the air, it would have been buried in a creek at the bottom of the gully.)
By the time we got back to the clubhouse, we were all pretty cold and a little beat-up by the wind. But it was 3:15, and the Masters telecast was well underway. We raced over to my friend’s house, poured Scotches for them and a rum for me, and sat down to start cheering and jeering and bemoaning the missed chances or the blown rounds. When Tiger birdied 11, we all thought, game on! But it wasn’t to be.
My friend cooked up a great seafood pasta with clams and squid. We opened a bottle of 1995 Italian red (yeah, we all love seafood with red wine) and then a bottle of 1999 Caymus Special Selection, and then, finally, it was time for cigars. I had brought some Padrón 1964 Aniversarios with about six or seven years of age on them, and a couple of Tatuajes. We were sitting in my friend’s home office where he operates his own stock trading business. I asked him if he smoked regularly in there; I was pretty sure I knew the answer because it didn’t have that familiar aroma of leather and fabric permeated with cigar smoke. He said not regularly, but he wanted to today. I said remember this word: Ozium, which is a room deodorizer. And, we opened all the windows to help keep the air moving.
Posted: Apr 8, 2008 4:15pm ETWine dinners. How many of you have been to them? I assume quite a few of you are passionate about wine. If you love the connoisseurship side of cigars, there’s plenty of good reason to feel the same way about wine. It’s a handcrafted product that comes out of the earth, and is brought to you by people with a passion for taste and flavor, and there is a foundation of knowledge that you need to acquire to fully enjoy it. But how many of these dinners have you attended in which the wine or the food or both are disappointments? Sometimes it is the execution of the evening, sometimes it is the selection of wines, sometimes it is the choice of food. Whatever the problem, the successful wine dinner is harder to pull off than you might imagine.
I attended one last Friday night where there were no problems. Now, I must give full disclosure because I’m a member of the wine committee that helped organize the evening, but really, other than choose the night, we did nothing except show up and bring our friends. The committee has been charged with improving the wine program at my country club, and we’re now into our first full season.
The best thing we did was hire the right consultant. Glen Vogt, the former general manager of Windows on the World before it was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks and a walking encyclopedia of wine, has been putting new selections on the club’s list. For the dinner, he worked with the spring menu in our casual dining room, and decided to focus on Italian wines. The wines were not just your standard well-known Italian brands but a selection of interesting and unusual wines; they’ll all be on the club’s list this summer. There was a Prosecco to start, white wines from Alto Adige and Veneto, more white wines including an Arneis from Piedmont, and a spectacular Roscetto from Lazio that tasted like a great white Burgundy. The red wines included a Dolcetto d’Alba, a Chianti Classic Riserva, a super-Tuscan and a Barolo. It was all finished off by a wonderful sweet wine from the Veneto region.
Posted: Mar 31, 2008 12:37pm ETMy friend Chuck, the proud owner of a new Audi R8, planted the thought a few weeks ago. “There’s this cigar lounge up the Hudson Valley. Let’s take the cars one Saturday, drive up and have a cigar.” I said sure. This past week, I realized I had a chunk of free time on Saturday. There won’t be many Saturdays left open with golf season kicking off in the Northeast, but this past weekend, it was still a bit too cold and blustery for an old guy like me. So I called Chuck on Friday morning, and said, “Let’s do it.” He was free.
I knew where I wanted to go. For at least a decade, Glynna Schlesinger, the owner with her husband Neil, of Hudson Valley Cigars in New Windsor, had been bugging me to come up and visit. Soccer and golf had always conspired to keep me on my own side of the Hudson River. Dave Savona had been there a couple of times and always raved about the cigars, and the food in the adjacent Schlesinger’s Steak House, which they own.
Saturday dawned frigid and sunny. I worked for a few hours on my taxes, but at 11, the phone rang and Chuck said, “Where are we going to meet?” I described an entrance ramp to the Taconic State Parkway, one of my favorite driving roads in the world, and we set a time. I quickly showered, but left myself enough time to take a cloth to the car and wipe off a few rain spots that had gathered since the car’s last wash. Oh yea, I have a new S5 which I’ve blogged about here. It was glistening in the sunlight, and ready for a road trip.
I got to our meeting spot first. I watched in the rear view as Chuck turned his low-slung 420 horsepower beast onto the ramp, its ultra cool LED daytime running lights blazing twin arrows across the car’s grill. I thought he might stop to chat before zooming off but he roared by and onto the highway. I was on his tail in flash, and we proceeded to trade off leading the way up the Taconic. Now, I don’t want to give anyone the idea that we were reckless. No one got cut off, there was no weaving and darting in and out of traffic and I didn’t pull the old Autobahn tricks of flashing my lights at cars sitting in the left hand lane. But since I’m very familiar with every nook and cranny of the Taconic, it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that when I was flashing my lights at Chuck, it was to warn him of a favorite lurking spot of New York State’s finest highway patrol. In between those spots, and especially on the winding curves of several stretches of the highway, we put our cars through their paces. Let me add. It was a blast.
Posted: Mar 19, 2008 3:55pm ETThe half moon disappeared and reappeared behind the low passing clouds, and the slow waving palm frond above me kept blocking my view of the pearly white orb. The pool at the Hotel Biltmore was softly lit, creating an almost luminescent aquamarine surface, and the arcade running down one side was filled with people talking and drinking. I was across the pool, laying back on a deck chair, a glass of 2005 red burgundy in one hand, and a cigar in the other.
I thought briefly about the freezing temperatures back home in New York, and the soon to kick off golf season when the winter there finally ends. But my thoughts didn’t linger there. I was reveling in the warmth leftover from a day of record-setting temperature in Miami; it reached 90 degrees one day last weekend. And all weekend long, I’d caught the sweet aromas of cigars from people by the pool, or finishing up meals in some of the hotel’s outdoor dining areas where smoking is still permitted in the great state of Florida. I finally had to have one of my own.
The cigar had been given to me by my co-worker, Dave Savona. before he headed off on a week’s vacation. It was a petit corona from an original batch of La Aurora Cien Años, one of the best cigar lines ever to come out of the Dominican Republic. It was rich and spicy, and after nearly five years of age, beginning to lose all traces of bite while smoothing out into a delicious smoke. Although a small cigar, I savored it for more than half an hour, and was in danger of burning my fingertips from smoking it down to the nub.
I’d been at the Hotel Biltmore about a month before, hosting the South Beach Food and Wine Festival’s golf tournament on the hotel’s recently renovated, original Donald Ross course. It’s a great golf track, but as great as it is, it only matches the outstanding hotel adjacent to it. The hotel has been completely refurbished in recent years, and now sports all the amenities associated with five-star hotels. There’s a spa, a big fitness center, and one of the best restaurants in South Florida, the Palme d’Or, where my daughter, on spring break from college, insisted that we eat so that we could order the seared foie gras—she was right, it was great. In fact, my daughter had instigated this trip only a few weeks before when she cajoled me into coming up with a trip to a warm place during her break.
Posted: Feb 26, 2008 9:22am ETJust got back from the South Beach Food & Wine Festival in Miami. There was some golf involved, but I won’t rub it in too much.
Here are few random observations.
I attended a cocktail reception before a dinner on Wednesday night for many of the Miami-based cigar manufacturers who were in town last week. You would think that in Florida, which has some of the most restrictive smoking laws in the United States, that we would have been relegated to the Hard Rock Café on the nearby Seminole reservation. But we were at Smith & Wollensky on South Beach, in a small outdoor terrace area. Beautiful. Smoking cigars with the dazzling Miami skyline in the background, and Fisher Island lit up across the channel into the cruise ship boat docks. (Later, we snuck out to watch the Miami Hurricanes defeat No. 5-ranked Duke 96-95 in a thrilling college basketball game.)
Thursday night was the kick-off night for SOBE 2008, and I attended a great dinner dubbed Divine Divas, a tribute to some of the outstanding female chefs and winemakers in the hospitality business. It was a fundraiser for Diabetes Research Institute in Miami hosted by Samantha Shanken Baker, vice president of market development for M. Shanken Communications Inc. Afterwards, the terrace outside the spectacular ballroom was opened up, and La Flor Dominicana cigars were offered along with a selection of Grand Marnier liqueurs including their 150-year-old. You never know how many people will stay after a long dinner, but there were more than 100 people out on the terrace, under the stars and the returning eclipsed moon, smoking cigars and sipping on Grand Marnier. What could be better than that!
On Friday, Cigar Aficionado and yours truly hosted the festival’s annual golf tournament, a fundraiser for the Florida International University’s hospitality program. More than 130 golfers joined in the fun at the newly renovated golf course at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. An original Donald Ross track, more than $5 million has been poured into in the last 12 months, and I guarantee you that you won’t find a better-conditioned golf course in the Miami area right now. Furthermore, if you love old designs that have been updated but still retain their original character and charm, this is it. Of course, cigars were served all day long, and I had a few more La Flor Dominicanas; the company was the official cigar sponsor of the event this year.
Posted: Feb 15, 2008 3:55pm ETLast week, I escaped the Northeast winter. The trip lasted only for four days, coinciding with my wife’s journey to a seven-day stay at a West Coast spa, but I managed to squeeze in 90 holes of golf. Do the math. Two travel days took away two half days of golf, so we only managed 18 holes on Thursday and Sunday. And, after 36 holes on Friday, we showed our incredible maturity and wisdom gleaned from our more than 50 years on the planet, and canceled the second 18 on Saturday.
We played a great new Raymond Floyd course, Old Palm, and a wonderful but tough Jack Nicklaus design at the Ritz Carlton Country Club in Jupiter. We laid our heads on pillows at the PGA National Resort in Palm Gardens, site of the upcoming Honda Classic on its Champions Course, an early Jack Nicklaus design.
Nice hotel. It’s been totally renovated, and while some building renovations were getting their final touch-ups during our stay, the changes are all for the better. I would say that this is a great place to go for a quick golf getaway. It’s geared up to handle hundreds of players on its four courses, and the daily process from check-in to first tee was smooth and without a hitch. The General, or Palmer course, also has undergone a renovation, but frankly, after playing it on Saturday, I don’t think it holds a candle to the Champions course, and its famed three consecutive holes on the back nine called the Bear Trap. Trust me; if the wind blows for the pros on Sunday, March 2, there will be some big swings on the leaderboard as they play through those three holes. One of my playing partners hit a solid 4-iron, a normal 190-yard club for him, to a 155 yard flag at the par three 15th on Sunday, and barely got there. I won’t repeat my performance there for public consumption; suffice it to say my 5-iron wasn’t enough club.
But the best part of the weekend came each evening on the veranda just off the lobby bar at the PGA resort, and overlooking the newly redone pool area. My friend Mory is a true cigar aficionado, and blessed with a father who has been a life-long cigar smoker and cigar collector who in recent years has from time to time passed on some his treasures to his son. My medical publisher buddy, Chuck, and the neurology professor friend, Matt, also are serious cigar lovers, and the four of us didn’t hesitate to retire to the porch with a glass of port, or another round of red wine. It was shirtsleeve weather, which for a northeasterner in February is about as close to Nirvana as you can come.