The Galloping Oenophile
My friend the collector spends more time on vacation than any other employed man I know. He's forever taking off to some fabulous place to eat good food, drink great wine and play golf. (Why is it that every top inn or resort seems to have been built on the belief that a great restaurant deserves an equally great...putting green?) First-rate food and wine are rarely found in places that specialize in my sport, horseback riding. I don't know why. Perhaps horses are still considered the sidekick to cowboys, whose meals consist, cinematically at least, of cold coffee and beans. But traveling around the country recently, I found three places—in Massachusetts, South Carolina and Arizona—that are as serious about their menus and wine lists as they are about matters equine.
Stonehedge Inn, Tyngsboro, Massachusetts
My stay at Stonehedge Inn, an Adirondack-style lodge just north of Boston, began much like a blind date. Checking into my room, I found an envelope that contained an eight-by-ten photo with a note attached: "This is who you'll be spending the day with tomorrow." It was a headshot of a tall, dark, handsome...horse.
My date came from Casa Lusitana, an equestrian academy down the road from Stonehedge that's run by Portuguese chief rider/former bullfighter/Antonio Banderas look-alike Jorge Gabriel. Stonehedge's owners, Dawn and Levent Bozkurt, got together with Gabriel to offer guests who are also equestrians a package deal that includes two nights at the inn, two riding lessons and a Portuguese lunch, complete with port, at Casa Lusitana.
I'd never seen a Lusitano horse before I met Gabriel and his cadre of riders (one of whom even commutes from California). In fact, I had the breed confused with Lipizzans, the performing horses from Austria—something I later realized was like mistaking an NBA point guard for a Harlem Globetrotter. Lusitanos are bred primarily in Portugal and Brazil; they are extremely rare and expensive. (The horse I rode cost five times as much as my car.) And they perform with the delicacy of a ballet star. As Gabriel issued instructions from the ground, my horse danced a piaffe, which is a sort of fast jig in place, and a capriole, one of the "airs above the ground" movements, which looked—and felt—like flying.
Nearly as rare as Lusitanos are the wines that Levent Bozkurt has amassed for Stonehedge's restaurant, Silks, which has one of the best lists in the Northeast. The staggering 98,000-bottle collection includes wines from around the globe, though Bozkurt's particular passion is California Cabernet and Bordeaux. The prices are also extremely fair. In fact, I found quite a few first growths for at least $200 less than they were on wine lists in New York City. As Bozkurt said, "People tell me they've paid higher prices at auction than they have for some wines on my wine list." He keeps his prices affordable for one reason: "I like to see a bottle of wine on every table." Bozkurt also believes in selling a wine only when he deems it ready for drinking. While many wine lists around the country feature raw, two-year-old Napa Cabs, Bozkurt's youngest Napa offerings are nearly a decade old.
Even his Zinfandels are well aged—though Zin isn't a varietal most people would consider keeping for more than a few years. When I was looking for a wine to accompany chef Andreas Mensch's roasted lamb chops with crisp herb polenta and cherry tomato confit, Silks' sommelier, Michael Otaka, suggested I try the 1994 Sky Zinfandel from Napa's Mt. Veeder ($56). It turned out to be remarkably fresh, its fruit still sweet, its acidity firm.
I would have stayed on at Stonehedge, drinking from the cellar—perhaps the 1990 Château Cos d'Estournel for $264, its markup a bare minimum above its auction price, or perhaps the gorgeous 1997 Zind-Humbrecht Riesling from Alsace's legendary Clos Windsbuhl vineyard, well-priced at $92 a bottle. But I was afraid of getting too attached to the Lusitanos. Especially since one of the women at the stable told me she'd arrived "just wanting to ride" and now owned three horses—not something I could imagining explaining as a souvenir.
The Willcox, Aiken, South Carolina
Of all the amenities I've ever found in a hotel room, a personal bootjack was a definite first. But the clientele of The Willcox, an extensively and expensively refurbished 1898 inn that opened in the spring of 2002, are decidedly the boot-wearing kind. Indeed, Aiken—with its five polo fields, three racetracks and hundred-year history as a vacationland for Vanderbilts—is the most horse-centric place I've ever been. Every Aiken street sign is adorned with a horse's head, and half the houses in town have a stable in addition to (or sometimes instead of) a garage. Even the buttons for changing the traffic lights have been raised to the height of a rider on horseback. "Horses are king in Aiken," John Graham, the general manager of The Willcox, told me.
The Willcox itself was horsey enough (racing prints on the walls, polo sticks in the hall) though not oppressively so, at least according to my sister, whom I'd brought along. Although she doesn't ride and doesn't even like horses (not since a Shetland pony shoved her into the ground), she appreciates good wine and food and—since she's in the home-furnishings business—tasteful decor. All of which The Willcox had in abundance. Even the guest rooms had a pedigree, right down to the bedsheets hand-sewn in Belgium. "These must be at least 300 thread count," said my sister, fingering one appreciatively. (Thread count to her is what terroir is to me.)
The Willcox doesn't have its own stable, though it does have connections to some of the best in town. And it's conveniently close to the Hitchcock Woods—a 2,100-acre park in the center of Aiken designed with horses in mind, both the ridden and the driven kind. (Carriages are commonplace in Aiken; I saw several women driving around town, a sweetly nostalgic scene were it not for the crash helmets on their heads.)
There are so many great horse trails in the Woods (over 65 miles) that Tina and Julie, the two local women who accompanied me, said they brought their horses in from the country just to go riding there, sometimes as often as three times a week. Even so, Tina's husband, Mac, whom I met the next day at an Aiken polo match, told me, "Tina should quit her job so she can spend more time with her horse"—something I can imagine only an Aiken husband would say.
After a long, scenic ride, I met up with my sister in The Willcox's lobby. We'd been told this was the best place to catch sight of local celebrities, a.k.a. polo players. (Never mind that the only polo player I could recognize was Prince Charles and I didn't think his team was in town.) Maître d' Mark Stebbings poured us glasses of 2001 Miner Family Viognier and leaned over to chat about the wine. Suddenly, he stood at attention. A shortish fellow had entered the lobby. "That's the man behind Polo Players Edition," said Stebbings in an awed tone. Was it, I wondered, the power of the press or of polo?
The menu at Seeger's at The Willcox, which focuses on local ingredients like Carolina mountain trout, is the work of Atlanta-based star chef Guenter Seeger in conjunction with local chef Robert McCormick. My crab cake with fried green tomato and remoulade and my barbecued squab with date chutney and spicy okra were quite good—artfully prepared and subtly flavored—though a bit spare and small. (Meals are now said to be more generously plated.) The wine list is still evolving. Though its strength is Napa Cabernet, with wine-auction finds like the 1991 Ridge Monte Bello, Stebbings and Philip Wood, president of The Willcox's parent company, have been buying "more Rieslings, Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs," Wood says. My sister and I shared a rich, generous 1998 Panther Creek Freedom Hill Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley, which I found a perfect foil to Seeger's nuanced food.
Indeed, my sister loved The Willcox so much she announced she'd be returning with her husband. But my brother-in-law didn't like horses any more than she did, I said. No matter, my sister replied. As long as there was good food and good wine—not to mention hand-sewn Belgian sheets—they could overlook all those horses.
Miraval Life in Balance, Catalina, Arizona
In all the years I've ridden horses, I've never thought of them as a means of "discovering" myself. Impoverishing myself, perhaps. Yet according to Wyatt Webb, creator of the famed Equine Experience seminar at the posh Miraval resort outside of Tucson, gaining spiritual insight is what a horse can enable a person to do.
I'd come to Miraval less in search of myself than in search of what I'd heard was some very good spa food from chef Bill Wavrin (who gained renown during his time at another famous spa, Rancho La Puerta) and an inventive wine list featuring boutique producers like Germany's Dr. Bürklin-Wolf and Australia's Trevor Jones.
But judging from the class sign-up sheets in Miraval's adobe-style arrival center, Miraval guests had more on their mind than eating and drinking. Yoga, for example. Not to mention meditation and, of course, spa treatments, of which Miraval has dozens. Quite a few women—as at most spas, almost all Miraval guests are female—had signed up for the Equine Experience as well, though no more than had expressed interest in seminars like Awakening Feminine Wisdom and Mindful Decision Making. But all these programs were outstripped in popularity by the Mindful Stress Reduction seminar, which was completely full, with a long waiting list.
My most mindful experiences came at lunch and dinnertime, when chef Wavrin introduced one of his daily themed menus, focusing on cuisines ranging from Asian to Mediterranean. Wavrin managed to make what was essentially diet food remarkably flavorful (he was particularly deft with chile peppers), so much so that I had trouble believing the calorie counts printed next to each item. Was it really possible an Asian smoked duck breast with a wild cherry-tamarind chutney had only 360 calories? I found myself wanting seconds, which were allowed, although it seemed to defeat the whole purpose of counting calories. The Miraval outlook on wine was equally generous: Guests could sample any of the suggested wine pairings by the glass. While I was there the choices included a well-made Elk Cove Pinot Gris, a Georg Breuer Riesling from the top 2001 vintage and a rustic but delicious A Mano Primitivo from Puglia, Italy.
As for the Equine Experience, I found Wyatt quite charismatic and warm in a Barbara Walters sort of way ("Tell me about your pain," he said) but I didn't want to "share" as much as I just wanted to ride a horse. After all, if I'd wanted to sit around talking about feelings, there were plenty of people I could consult back home in New York. The closest we actually got to the horses was a quick grooming session, a walk in a circle and a brief exercise in a round pen.
I returned to New York well fed and well rested, though not necessarily equine-enlightened. On the other hand, I've been looking at those Central Park carriage drivers in an entirely different way.