Easy Escapes for Two
Getaways that are close to home — and yet a world away
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Wine Trail in the Quiet Corner
A drive along the wine trail in the quiet corner, the northeastern quadrant of Connecticut that is designated as a National Heritage Corridor, will have you wrapped in fall’s magnificent cloak of many colors. Few tourists are to be found in the villages or at the town greens, which makes a visit there a pleasure. The route alongside the Quinebaug and Shetucket rivers is one of the most beautiful drives in the state, crisscrossing through hundreds of acres of woodland and horse trails, alongside rivers, lakes and campgrounds, beside alpaca and dairy farms, and past bungalow-type houses cheek-by-jowl to newly constructed colonials. Known as the Last Green Valley for good reason — the Quiet Corner encompasses more than 1,000 square miles dense with trees — its hills present panoramic views clear across to Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Before you take to the scenic highways to explore the vineyards, check into the Mansion at Bald Hill, the quintessential estate of nineteenth-century gentry and a perfect base for your sorties. The four-story mansion, once the home of the heiress to the Pullman train fortune, sits on the grounds of the Linemaster Switch company, which also manicures the property. The inn bespeaks old-time propriety. Although the place could use some updating, accommodations are very comfortable, the staff is gracious, and the food is terrific. New owners and chefs Joel Theriaque and Scott Plantier bring their culinary wizardry to the dining room every breakfast and dinner (you swear you’ll never be hungry again). Request a room overlooking the rear lawn and be sure to wander into a side garden where brides and grooms exchange vows.
Nearby, on Route 171, taylor brooke is a good starting point for your wine trail. We arrived one beautiful morning before the tasting room was opened for the day, but the door was unlocked, no one was in (and the guard dog Zima didn’t so much as budge), so we perused the shop (sherry glasses, dishes, books, cutting boards, jarred condiments) before Dick Auger, his gray locks tied back in a ponytail, showed up.
A hobby vintner (he is global director of engineering and operations for Pfizer by profession), Dick found that he was giving away so many of his homemade wines that he thought it time to go into the industry professionally. He and his wife Linda bought the old farmstead nine years ago, planted the vines, and now produce about 2,000 cases of thirteen to fifteen wines a year, including Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Traminette (developed at Cornell) and dessert wines. Their Merlot infused with chocolate essence is fabulous, perfect with the thinnest slice of cheesecake.
And for different wines and a truly spectacular view, hike to the crest of the vineyard at sharpe hill in Pomfret with the owner, perky, meticulously groomed Catherine Vollweiler (who lives in Purchase year-round). No encyclopedia could outshine this little lady with knowledge of — and affection for — the Quiet Corner. She talks about seeing snow falling miles away in Massachusetts from the hilltop long before it falls in her fields, about going organic in her vineyards, about the raised vegetable beds that supply her antiques-furnished restaurant (there is outdoor dining in good weather) and about business owners in the area (“Have you been to Celebrations? A great art gallery and gift shop. You should go.”). She’s proud of her tasting room fashioned after a period taproom and the fireplace with its ancient tea kettle just at the bottom of the stairs leading to the dining room.
Catherine and her husband Steven have garnered hundreds of awards over the years for their wines (which include Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Gamay). Their Ballet of Angels is the No. 1 New England–selling wine. It is a beautiful aperitif. Plan to visit on weekends when the tasting room is open (for $10 you get to taste ten wines and keep the glass). Be sure to hike through the vineyard and leave time to walk the grounds.
There are no vineyards at the westford hill distillers in tiny Ashford. Nor was it easy to find on a narrow country road that bends and turns, it seems, every few yards. We passed the house that belongs to owners Louis and Margaret Chatey three times before we decided that this had to be the site of the distillery, which admittedly is hidden from view from the road.
First, a black Vietnamese pot-bellied pig greeted us outside the barn that is home to distinguished, award-winning clear fruit brandies, and then came Margaret, a former advertising executive who left the corporate world for a career in producing artisanal eaux-de-vie (cherries, raspberries, strawberries) and apple and pear brandies. Her conversation-grabbing Poire Prisonnière boasts an actual pear in the bottle. The fruit literally mature in the bottles, a project of Russ Holmberg, who approached Margaret with the idea while he was still a student at UConn. The brandies are distilled solely from pure fruit with no additional sugar, alcohol or flavors added.
Actually, Westford Hill itself has some interesting footnotes. The original house dates to 1711 and has been in the Chatey family since 1919, back to when the farm was self-sustaining with cows and pigs and acres devoted to crops. Grandfather Chatey’s claim to fame was raising the first watermelon of the season, and grandmother and mother were talented gardeners — hundreds of their daylilies, peonies and irises are carefully tended by Margaret today.
There have been additions to the house, of course, but the old rooms, with their low ceilings and furniture dating from that era, is history preserved. The small parlor at the entrance is a music room of sorts, where guitar, piano and violin are regularly played by Lou, a music major in college. Normally closed to visitors, the house and distillery, with its Jules Verne–like distilling apparatus, will be on a popular walking tour early this month. Tastings are not permitted due to license restrictions.
When Margaret and Lou married in the eighties and moved to the 200-acre property, they planned to plant a vineyard, but a trip to Alsace changed their minds. They decided to produce brandies instead — “No one else was doing it in the Northeast,” says Margaret. There is no orchard as yet, so all fruits are trucked in from elsewhere. Three women help part-time with the distillation process. Today, ten years after they first started, they have captured Best of Show for their Poire Prisonnière at the prestigious Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition. Their brandies have been highly praised in the press and are sold in several states besides Connecticut. In Greenwich, they are sold at AOC, Horseneck Wine & Liquor, Wine Wise and Glenville Wine & Spirits. And over at Crew Restaurant in town, owner/mixologist Chris Geideman whips up a delicious cocktail with the pear brandy.