There’s something special about connecting with friends from home while on the road, bonding with familiar faces in unfamiliar places. We got to do that twice last week – first at an apple farm near the Hudson River Valley in New York and then at ESPN’s headquarters in central Connecticut.
Dallas friends Rick and Sherry have long owned a family farmhouse in New York. It’s been a vacation retreat for decades. This is the view from their front door.
And here’s a view from the back porch.
Seven years ago, with grandchildren on the way, they decided to go into the apple business.
Not just any apple business. The apple brandy business.
Today, they have 1,800 dwarf-cider apple trees representing 114 apple varieties.
They also grow rye.
And they’ve built a distillery.
This year they will release their first hand-crafted spirits that have been barrel-aged for more than a year.
And we got to taste some of it!
The farmhouse itself is lovely – and special. The living room dates to the late 1700s and boasts what Rick describes as the best fireplace draw he’s ever experienced.
Can’t you just imagine George Washington standing here at the hearth, poking at the coals, contemplating how best to build a nation?
And here’s Sherry’s colorful kitchen window display.
We definitely had a Room With a View from our Casita. You can imagine it from this photo, which was taken from the second story balcony of the “barn,” which has been converted into a spacious three-bedroom guest house.
Already at the farmhouse when we arrived were several good friends of Rick and Sherry’s – also from Dallas. They’d attended a lovely wedding the night before and were enjoying a cool, tranquil weekend at Shady Knoll before returning to Big D. It was a pleasure to meet – and eat and drink with – Cindy (mother of the bride), Gay, Terry, Susie and Jolene during our visit.
Rick gave us all a brief tour of the orchard, with its four acres of espaliered apple trees.
We learned a bit about apples. The season for planting replacement trees and pruning existing trees, for example, is very early in the year, February and March, while the ground and the temperatures are still cold.
You’ll notice the lower part of the tree trunks are covered with white fiberglass. This is to protect them from mice. Rick lost a lot of apple trees to mice damage in the orchard’s early years. It took considerable research, but Rick believes he’s discovered an effective shield against the pesky critters.
Rick and his son-in-law, Andrew, do all the harvesting themselves – at least so far. They hand pick two or three different varieties at a time, every week from about August through November.
While Rick rules the orchard, Andrew directs the distillery. (Rick divides his time between Dallas and New York; Andrew and family live in New York.) Andrew is responsible for the magic that converts the fruit into brandy. He’s also learned how to make rye whiskey.
We tasted 14-month-old brandy first. This is an American variation on the delectable “calvados” that the French made famous more than two centuries ago.
Typical French brandy is 10 years old; Shady Knoll brandy is still a work in progress. But they’re off to a great start. As far as we can tell, it’s the only hand-crafted apple brandy aged in used Madeira wine barrels from Portugal. This is what gives Shady Knoll brandy its cinnamon tinge and signature spice. Like most brandy, it is 40 percent alcohol.
Then we tasted the Pommeau, a blend of their apple brandy and fresh apple juice. It’s a bit sweeter, milder, just 17 percent alcohol and barely six months old. This goes down easy. It would make an excellent aperitif.
Finally, we tasted the rye, aged barely six months. It’s 85 percent rye, 15 percent malted barley and – relative to the other two libations we sampled – has a sharper tingle on the tongue. The flavor was alluring. Aged in burned barrels, it has a more herbal, spicy flavor than, say, bourbon, which is distilled from corn.
Andrew invited us all to sign a barrel of rye whiskey that had just been distilled and put in the barrel earlier the same day we visited. This was exciting. (You can see G’s signature near the upper right, mine to the lower right.)
I wonder who will drink that rye when it’s finally opened, bottled and corked a couple of years from now – and just what they’ll be toasting!
The Shady Knoll vision? To create unique hand-crafted spirits for retail using natural and homegrown ingredients. (They even raise their own honeybees.) Rick and Andrew estimate their annual production will be about 2,500 bottles (.375L) of apple brandy and 4,000 bottles (.75L) of rye whiskey and whiskey.
Of course, with all that drinking, we had to do some eating. Georges enjoyed serving as sous-chef to master chef Rick.
We enjoyed lamb, chicken, beef – and lots of fresh grilled veggies, etc. (Also delicious leftover wedding cake!)
There were nine of us that night, a festive bunch. This is a shot of us all, minus G, the photographer….
I’m not sure what time we all went to bed after that scrumptious food and drink, but G and I slept exceptionally well. It was so very quiet, nestled as we were into the rich green rolling hills just a few miles northeast of Poughkeepsie.
We were awakened at dawn the next morning by a trio of American robins. We also saw several blue jays, killdeer and – later in the day with their bodies silhouetted in against the sun – two red-tailed hawks.
From there it was a beautiful, winding and wooded drive to Bristol, Connecticut, a smallish town in the middle of a tiny state, headquarters to sports behemoth ESPN.
It had been two years since we’d seen Mike Drago, formerly of The Dallas Morning News and currently an investigations editor at ESPN. Mike used to run a good portion of the Dallas newsroom and, by the time he left, had directed the newspaper’s op-ed pages for nearly two years.
Mike – smart, measured, perceptive, thorough – was always a joy to work with. ESPN is lucky to have him. We miss his sound news judgment, good humor and anchored common sense.
As we pulled into the sprawling, nearly 100-acre ESPN campus, I felt as though we were entering a city within a city. We’re talking some 20 buildings totaling nearly one-million square feet to accommodate more than 4,000 employees. Twenty-seven giant satellite dishes stand sentry on the hills along one side of the campus – an area nicknamed the “satellite farm.”
Thank goodness, Mike met us at the security building. We’d have needed a multi-page instruction manual to find his office, although I can think of worse tortures than getting lost among the beautifully landscaped gardens and walkways connecting the disparate buildings and skyways.
ESPN has weathered some tough economic times of late, but it’s still considered “sports heaven” to many enthusiasts. I had no idea that, according to the facts on the wall in the security office, the average person spends nearly seven hours each week with ESPN media.
Mike gave us a grand tour. We started with college football. (If you touch one of the icons on the screen in the second photo here, the school fight song plays. Very cool.)
Then came the studios. Here’s a photo of the original.
Here’s what Studio B looks like, courtesy of G’s short video pan. (Click on the small arrow in the center of the screen.)
We met several of Mike’s colleagues along the way and enjoyed a tasty lunch at the spacious on-site ESPN cafe. We even ran into another former Dallas Morning News editor, Dwayne Bray, who now oversees most of the ESPN investigations you see on TV and digital platforms.
(In the small world department: Dwayne was a protege of the late Max Jennings, an editor in Mesa, Arizona with whom I worked for years on a PBS current-events television program during my tenure at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.)
Of course, we did our share of posing with a variety of famous ESPN studio backdrops.
Mike introduced us to Ryan Smith just minutes before Smith hosted a live OTL program that included a withering critique of President Trump by Golden State’s Steve Kerr. Smith was as warm and personable as could be – clearly comfortable multi-tasking seconds before the lights-camera-action moment…..
It was a delightful couple of hours. It’s clear Mike and his family are thriving in Connecticut. Son James is playing soccer with some of the best 9-year-olds in the state and loving it!
We had to snag a shot of the three of us, of course, before leaving.
Here’s hoping it won’t be another two years before we get to see Mike again….
In the meantime, we’re heading back to the coast to visit family along the Connecticut-Rhode Island border. My 90-year-old mother is flying in from Dallas to join us! It’s been a long time….