On Wednesday September 18, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend a farm-to-table dinner presented by the Friends of Boulder Knoll, a group focused on educating the local community about agriculture and sustainability. I was invited by Tim Crakes of South End Wine and Spirits, a boutique wine store in Cheshire, CT, that would be providing the beverages for the event. I wasn’t sure what to expect; in fact, that is a part of the state I seldom frequent. While I take Metro North into New York City on a regular basis, I have never stepped onto it in the opposite direction. What I found was a gorgeous small town and vibrant farming community. Both Tim and the Friends of Boulder Knoll provided me with total access to an evening of purity, totally untouched by the pace of the city and daily life.
I step off the train in New Haven, staring up at the city looming above me. I take in the tall metallic buildings and the sounds of traffic. How could a night of farm-to-table goodness begin with this? I suspend my disbelief and start my hunt for Tim Crakes, manager of South End Wine & Spirits in Cheshire, CT. I have never met him before, but when I see a young man approaching me enthusiastically I know it’s him. He greets me warmly and we climb into his car. The city slowly disappears behind us and open roads, fields, and small towns take its place.
Tim and I arrive at South End Wine & Spirits. Cheshire is relatively small and the store is situated in one of its “busier” areas, a small shopping plaza on South Main Street. We pull into the back and see a middle-aged man enjoying the sunshine at a patio table with two greyhounds at his side.
“This is the boss,” Tim says with a twinkle in his eye.
“Don’t worry, there’s a buzzer if customers come in,” explains James Barbato. “We pretty much know them all, we’ve got good people who come here. I figured I’d enjoy the sun for a few minutes.”
I enjoy this candid, laid back spirit. In a world where wine drinking can be considered pretentious and overzealous sommeliers accost you with expensive bottles, it was refreshing to be in a place where everything moved at a normal pace.
The store is remarkable, an exercise in maximizing space. There are bottles on top of bottles: on shelves, in baskets, lining the walls. At first glance it’s overwhelming and could even be perceived as disorganized. But as I begin examining the bottles it all makes sense: these guys KNOW what they’re doing. These are impeccably selected wines spanning a range of regions and price points. Many are small production and esoteric. I’m in heaven.
“The organization of the store shows more of our passion than business savvy,” Time explains to me later. “It’s not designed for browsing. It’s designed for us to help the customers. We know 90% of the clientele on a first name personal basis.”
He then relays stories of putting the perfect bottles in customers’ hands. His tales illustrate how their intimate knowledge of a person’s taste helps them know exactly what they’d enjoy. As a result, they can introduce their clientele to beautiful gems that might otherwise go unnoticed. He beams, exuding genuine pride and passion.
“Emma, meet Tony. He’s providing the wines for the dinner tonight.”
As Tony’s face comes into focus I’m hit with a strange feeling of de ja vu and realize… I know him. In addition to being a talented wine distributor, Tony bartends at Darien Social and has served me some of the best Manhattans I’ve ever tasted. He begins taking me through the wines that will be served: Paradise Ridge 2011 Grandview Sauvignon Blanc, Field Stone Vineyards 2011 Russian River Chardonney, Halter Ranch 2011 Cotes de Paso Blanc, Mill Creek Vineyards 2010 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Halter Ranch 2009 Cotes de Paso Rouge, and Halter Ranch 2008 “Ancestor” Estate Blend.
“At first they told me these were nothing anybody would recognize. And I said EXACTLY,” he tells me. “I want to be different. I want the wines to be memorable.”
Tony works for Northeast Wine Brokers, an offshoot that he runs under the umbrella of Classic Wines. He constructs his portfolio with the meticulousness with which a beachcomber studies the shoreline looking for sea glass. He gravitates toward small production family-owned vineyards, especially those in California. In total, he chooses from about 15 wineries and offers approximately 65 wines.
I am incredibly excited to taste them at the dinner.
Tim and I pile back in his car as Tony follows behind us. After a few minutes, we glimpse a beautiful green hillside bathing in the glow of early evening sun. There is a tent set up that glimmers with candles. A small farmhouse stands next to it. I am excited; this is pure life at its finest.
I begin to meet the people responsible for tonight’s event, the Friends of Boulder Knoll. Dan Groberg, fundraising chair, and Lauren, another member, explain the organization to me.
The land is a “CSA,” or “Community Supported Agriculture.” This designation is not a community garden though. The city of Cheshire owns 180 acres of property and of those Friends of Boulder Knoll has 3 acres. People from the community pay to be a member of the CSA. Membership allows them to come to the farm every week for a bag of vegetables along with flowers, fruits, and herbs if they desire. It is a haven for nearby restaurants who want local fresh ingredients. The garden remains open for 8 to 9 months. Work begins in early April, but from May to October the CSA is in full swing.
Dan introduces me to Bob Giddings, who generously offers me a tour of the garden. Not one to shy away from adventure, I hike up my skirt a few inches and traipse off with him into the fields.
“A lot of the produce tonight will come from the farm… tomato, onions, string beans,” he tells me. “The chef tonight from Caseus gets his plantings from here.”
We walk through rows of tomatoes. There are varietals I’ve never seen before in all sizes and colors: black, red, green. He permits me to pluck one right off the vine and pop in my mouth. It is a burst of flavor. As we wander on admiring the vegetables, it becomes clear that the CSA is more than a place to procure local vegetables. It is an educational enterprise.
“One of our biggest missions is education, whether it’s how to grow vegetables or how to sustain the land,” he explains. In the past, they have had Eagle Scouts do projects there, church groups come work the land, and even a program hinging on bees in honor of their first President, an etymologist with a PhD.
“There are over 50 species of bees here,” he tells me with a triumphant tone. “We even had one of the first records of a species in the state of Connecticut.”
I pick a string bean from a nearby vine, place it in my mouth, and smile as the cornucopia of tastes fill my mouth. I look around in wonder at the acres sprawling in front of me. I am born and raised in Connecticut, but this is a Connecticut I have never seen. How can such purity exist amidst such giant cities? How is such beauty lie tucked away just a train ride away? It is a whole different type of life up here, and am loving it.
While wine is mesmerizing, dinner would not be complete without incredible food. A large, outdoor kitchen has been created in the front of the tent and a crew is hard at work preparing food. Ultimately, the construction seems like glorified camping. There are grills, smoke, and flame. Foldaway tables are filled with food. Grill, meet Gourmet.
“Let’s plate up!” commands Jason, the chef of the evening, who heralds from Caseus restaurant. The executive chef, John Naughright, could not make it tonight, but Jason is enjoying the experience.
“Everything you’re going to eat tonight is from within...,” he trails off. “I was going to say 100 miles, but it’s more like 15 miles. Except maybe the olive oil.”
I salivate as he describes the menu to me: housemade ricotta, a caprese salad with tomatoes from Boulder Knoll, brined and smoked chicken with tomato and barbeque sauce, and a medley of potatoes and root vegetables.
Above all, Jason respects the purity of ingredients. “The goal is to use revered products and not f**k with them… you can quote me on that!” he quips. “People take great foods and murder them.”
He continues, “We believe that small farms like this make what we do possible.”
For Jason, tonight’s dinner is a completely charitable endeavor. All time and materials are donated. On a typical day, he is fully invested in Ordinary, his new bar venture in New Haven that opened in mid April.
“It’s packed every night,” one of the guests tells me over dinner. “It’s good food. There’s a nice selection of beers, but it’s not a college bar.”
Jason also oversees a cheese truck, which I quickly learn is a local phenomenon.
The tent is abuzz with excited, hungry people. A few light taps on a microphone get our attention though, and we begin locating seats within the tent. The long tables embrace the rustic theme; they are decorated with candles and flowers fresh from the garden. It reminds me of a scene from the Gilmore Girls when the town gathers for seasonal festivals.
Dan thanks everyone for their contributions and then turns the floor over to the chef. He directs our attention to a freshly prepared smoked tomato jam accompanying our bread, a roasted and smoked baguette focaccia.
I sit politely, waiting for the food to get to me. I unobtrusively select a piece of bread and daintily spread the jam over the top.
“Oh dig in!” the man across from me says with a smile on his face. “You’re among friends here… even if you don’t know it yet!”
I feel at home immediately and take a big, delicious bite of focaccia.
As the dinner continues, I periodically slip away to the table just a few feet behind me where South End Wine & Spirits has set up their wine tasting. First up is the Paradise Ridge 2011 Grandview Sauvignon Blanc. There are elements of green apple and fruit. It is crisp, but the weight does not fade away like so many zippy fruit forward whites. How did Tony stumble upon such a special bottle?
“The family has relatives in Redding,” he tells me. “They sent me samples and I loved them.”
The next bottle, the Field Stone Vineyards 2011 Russian River Chardonnay, is equally enjoyable. Tony notes that it has “a little oak and definitely a little vanilla.” I also detect herbaceous elements, perhaps slightly reminiscent of eucalyptus. The bottle is the perfect balance between a heavily oaked California Chardonnay and one done in stainless steel. It is a choice Chardonnay drinkers of all persuasions could stand behind.
Third, I try a blend: Halter Ranch 2011 Cotes de Paso Blanc. The combination includes one of my favorite varietals, Grenache Blanc. It certainly has the weight of the Chardonnay; it is described at “rich on the palate.” Unlike most Chardonnays though, it has a distinct floral component. I even get a hint of basil. This is my favorite white so far.
I skip over the Mill Creek selection- only because I am already an avid fan of the vineyard. Their reds especially are luscious and true to type. I move on to the two selections I have been especially eager to try, the vinos from Halter Ranch. The Cotes de Paso Rouge has been calling out to me all evening. The varietals in the blend look enticing: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Counoise, Cainsault, and Tannat (I am a huge Tannat fan). The taste is as incredible as I imagined. It has a medium body and is a careful balance of fruit and pepper.
“It has a nice elegance to it. It’s not a big heavy wine,” Tony says.
Admittedly, the wine is still a touch young. Though it drinks nicely now, it would be spectacular as the tannins round out with time.
“It will probably improve for 10 years,” Tony confirms.
Finally, Tony pours me a taste of what he considers the evening’s prize: Halter Ranch’s 2008 “Ancestor” Estate Blend. Halter Ranch deems it its “Bordeaux style varietal reserve offering.” It contains Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah.
“This is a big, bold wine,” Tony exclaims while taking a sip. “Delicious!” 20 months in French Oak contribute to its robust body. The “Ancestor” is described as “seductive” with “complex aromas of ripe, black fruits, cedar, and vanilla.” The luscious offering retails at South End Wine & Spirits for $45.99.
While the Ancestor proved impressive, my favorite of the evening was the Cotes de Paso Rouge. South End has it available for $32.99 per bottle. I ask for another “taste” that I bring back to the table to supplement the evening’s delicious cuisine.
Regrettably, the evening is drawing to a close. The winners of the silent auction have been announced and people are laughing as the effects of wine and delicious food sink in. I consult the train schedule and see that it is time for me to leave the humble farm homestead and return to the formidable city from which I came. I thank Tim and Tony for the evening and head back to the car with Kenzie, Tim’s girlfriend, who has been tasked with getting me to the station.
Amid the evening darkness, I see the fields slip away. Stores and buildings start popping up on the horizon until they are all around me and I am once more in the center of a city.