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.
Posted: Feb 1, 2008 10:57am ETSomeone on the forums recently asked about the home humidors of the Cigar Aficionado editors. I decided to ignore my inner censor that kept shouting, “don’t let them into your home,” and give you a little peek at how I keep my cigars at home.
I used to have about six desktop humidors, everything from my first humidor that held about 30 cigars, purchased when I lived in Paris in the 1980s, to a very special Michel Perrenoud lacquered mahogany box that can hold about 100 cigars. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I would wake up one weekend and say, “Oh, my god, I haven’t charged my humidors in six weeks,” or a couple of times, even longer. It took time, every time, to re-charge them with the special container of distilled water that I kept for that purpose. Given the unreliability of some of the humidification devices I was stuck with, I also had to check the boxes for a day or two after the re-charging session to be sure that there wasn’t water leaking onto my precious stash. The entire process was essentially a pain.
When J.C. Pendergast built a medium-size cabinet humidor that didn’t cost an arm and a leg (just an arm), I decided to take the plunge and order one. I got the classic cherry wood exterior, three sliding drawers with dividers and a bottom section where I could store boxes. I think the specs say it will hold about 1,500 cigars if you max out every drawer to the top and fill the box section to capacity. I choose the glass front doors. It’s beautiful and sits perfectly in a small hallway where the door to my basement is located; it’s my little cigar corner where I also keep a cigar store Indian replica that a friend gave me for my 50th birthday a few years ago. I still keep two of the desktop humidors sitting on top of the cabinet.
Posted: Jan 22, 2008 10:28am ETI had a great phone call last week. I was sitting at my desk, finishing up one of my mystery tasting panel cigars (it wasn’t very good), and I answered the phone to find Marcos Padrón, from Padrón Cigars in Miami. He asked if I had a moment, because he had some guy in the shop who said he knew me from my high school days in Gainesville, Florida. “He says you were on the basketball team,” Marcos said, “and he’d like to talk to you.” I said sure, put him on, because he had enough of the facts right to be someone who really did know me.
Now, it’s always a little unsettling to hear a voice that you’ve maybe heard once in the last 37 years and you know immediately who it is before they say their name. “Hi, it’s Chris Wilmot,” the voice said, even though I already knew it was him. We bantered a bit about using my name in public places, and reminisced some about the good ole days at Gainesville High School.
Chris is a subscriber and a cigar smoker. He’s a small business owner in Florida, living in Orlando now, and he was on a business trip in Miami. After seeing the Jan/Feb issue’s pick of the Padrón 1926 No. 9 as the Cigar of the Year, he decided to stop by the store and pick up a box. And he decided to ask the guys there if they knew me. He told me how he loves the magazine, and how much fun it has been to follow my exploits.
I won’t ever forget my 30th high school reunion, when Chris declined to carry out his traditional class role as Masters of Ceremonies and someone thought it would be fun to ask me to take his place. Those are two scary thoughts: My 30th high school reunion (and it wasn’t yesterday, by the way), and me M.C.ing a gathering of people who, for the most part, I had not seen frequently in the previous 30 years. Fortunately, there were a few people there from our 1969 State Championship basketball team (Go Canes!), and a few other familiar faces including some of my old flames. And Chris helped move things along from the audience with his trademark wit and humor.
Posted: Jan 9, 2008 4:59pm ETI’ve been holding back, for almost an entire month. But I didn’t want to spoil the car section of the Good Life Guide in the Jan/Feb issue of Cigar Aficionado. The magazine is out. Many of you have gotten it already, or you can find it, so I can tell you about my Christmas present. That’s what I’m calling it anyway because it’s hard to otherwise justify my new car solely as a means of everyday transportation.
My lease ran out in November on my family car, an Audi A6 sedan that served as a soccermobile for most of the three years I had it in the garage. Since I began driving Audis in 1992, when most people still thought the German brand was jinxed, it was no surprise to me that I loved the car. Those wheels saw more pavement on holiday weekends on the New Jersey Turnpike and I-95, going to and from soccer tournaments, than a car, or the driver for that matter, should have to endure.
But I knew I was going to turn the car in. I like to lease cars because I want a new automobile every few years in my garage, and I long ago rationalized leasing instead of buying a depreciating asset. So every year a lease expires, I do a fair amount of research, checking out other makes of cars, and sometimes even driving them. For awhile I thought I might wait for a Jagaur XF in late spring 2008, but frankly, it didn’t light my fire when I saw a production model in late October. I also knew in advance that it wasn’t going to be in my price range. It didn’t take long to eliminate the “other” German automakers, although I drove a BMW 3-series when I lived in Europe 20 years ago, and I loved that car too. I’ve just never thought of myself as a Mercedes driver.
I went through the U.S. cars too. I love the new Chevy Malibu, and I think the Cadillac CTS is one of the best-looking cars on the market; but what can I say, I don’t think of myself as a Cadillac driver either. I’ve driven a lot of Ford Mustangs when I rent cars on business trips, and it just seems impractical for a family car. While I’m a fan of the bold, masculine lines of some of the new Chrysler products, there is just a bit too much of that influence in the design to make me feel comfortable.
Posted: Jan 4, 2008 11:22am ETI dined at an old favorite restaurant last night with my wife and daughter, on the occasion of our 27th wedding anniversary. The place? Chanterelle. The beautiful Tribeca eatery has been a fixture of the New York dining scene since 1979, and today, still carries a three-star award from The New York Times. Karen and David Waltuck run the restaurant, she in the dining room, and he over the stoves.
In this day and age of loud, trendy restaurants, Chanterelle is an island of serenity and tradition in lower Manhattan. Just like almost any evening of the last 25 years or so, you can start with the seafood sausage, a decadent little tube of succulent shellfish and other ocean goodies in a butter-infused sauce. I had actually threatened to ask if I could have, as my main course, the truffle-scented melted cheese sandwich that had arrived at the table as a wonderful little amuse-bouche.
My wife had a Niman Ranch pork loin. My daughter ordered one of her favorites, day boat scallops with caramelized endive. I had elk from Saskatchewan served on a bed of porcini. I could go on and on about each dish (yes, we do taste each other’s entrees in our family), but I’d rather recommend that you go and try them for yourselves.
One of the best parts of the evening was my chat with Roger Dagorn, the restaurant’s outstanding sommelier. I ordered a 2005 Red Burgundy, a Pernand Vergelesses from Louis Jadot, and we reminisced about the “old” days, when he offered cigars and allowed patrons to retire to the ante-room and smoke there. But the offer got more problematic over the years as the ante-room also served as the sitting area for guests waiting for their tables to open up, and then, the final blow came with the passage of the New York City smoking laws. Dagorn said during the summer months, they do put tables out on the sidewalk, and people are allowed to smoke out there.
Unfortunately, on Thursday night, the thermometer had fallen to about 13 degrees by the end of dinner, so there were no offers for an after-dinner smoke. It still was nice to know that there are cigar lovers in the restaurant trade.
Posted: Jan 2, 2008 11:04am ETI spent New Year’s Eve with some of the same people that I celebrated with 30 years ago. Yeah, they are really great old friends, including my then-girlfriend, now my wife. The mother of my daughter’s best friend joined the party, too. My daughter and her friend were there for the food, and then departed to meet with friends at their own parties.
Back in 1977, I got to the celebration at an apartment on 22nd Street in New York City shortly after midnight because I had been working the night shift at the Associated Press. But the revelry was still in full swing, just as it was two nights ago; this time, however, I had been there all night.
For many of these last 30 years, we have indulged in Raclette cheese with new red potatoes, cornichons and some pickled onions. In the party’s traditional form, we’d light a big fire and figure out some makeshift way to melt the cheese right in front of the fire. Over the years, sanity prevailed, and we bought an electric Raclette melter (yes, they do exist) that would sit neatly on the table, the cheese unadorned with the drops of sweat off my brow from sitting in front of the blazing fire.
But in honor of the tradition’s 30th anniversary, we reverted to the original method. It was hot in front of the fire, but I have to say that the cheese tasted better than it does from under the electric melter, and I wasn’t even sweating….too much. We also changed another element of the menu; we used to have an appetizer of foie gras, but after too many years of feeling way over-indulged afterwards, we served a salad this year instead. Oh yeah, I forgot—we started with some caviar this year!
What was different this year from the original party was the cigars. My friend Matthew and I left the ladies in front of the fire exploring great tunes on our wireless music system, and we went to the humidor. We both wanted Cubans. I don’t keep a lot at the house, and many of the ones there are gifts from friends, and therefore, unbanded and mysterious. I chose a panatela, probably an El Rey del Mundo, and Matthew picked a luscious Colorado-hued corona; my guess was a Paratagas.
Posted: Dec 19, 2007 4:46pm ETI told you so.
It is always a little dangerous for a journalist to openly pronounce, “I told you so.” But I had one of those moments today when I opened the front section of the New York Times. On page 2, there was an article headlined: “Report Finds U.S. Agencies Distracted by Focus on Cuba.”
Here’s the lead paragraph:
Catching Americans who travel illegally to Cuba or who purchase cigars, rum or other products from the island may be distracting some American government agencies from higher-priority missions like fighting terrorism and combating narcotics trafficking, a government audit to be released Wednesday says.
Duh! I’m been saying the same thing for years, complaining that investigations into the importation of cigars were costing millions of dollars as well as posing an unintended danger. I always complained that if U.S. Customs agents were being vigilant for cigars, what else were they missing.
The NYT story, based on a report by the Government Accountability Office, said that in Miami, custom agents conduct “secondary inspections” of people arriving on charter flights from Cuba at more than six times the rate of passengers arriving from nations know for illegal drug exports.
And, the story says, between 2000 and 2006, in the Office of Foreign Asset Control, the Treasury Department agency that enforces the Trading with the Enemy Act, “61 percent of its investigation and penalty caseload involved Cuba embargo cases.” Furthermore, the New York Times story said that during that same period the OFAC opened 10,823 investigations into possible violations involving Cuba and just 6,791 investigations on all other cases.
Guess what. OFAC is also in charge of operations to freeze terrorists’ assets overseas. But seizing cigars is more important than illegal narcotics and terrorist funds. Oh, I’m sure they would deny that charge, but the agency’s actions speak louder than whatever excuses they want to make. Look at the stats: nearly double the number of investigations into Cuba as other targets, which implicitly means terrorist funds.