Reasons to Visit Vermont
In addition to the ten reasons for heading to Burlington to run the Vermont City Marathon, there are ample justifications for simply visiting the place, some of which follow:
1) Quality Free Press
Call me old-fashioned, but I’m an ink person. I started out running a fanzine, I still subscribe to half-a-dozen magazines, I like to read the newspaper the conventional way (though I love reading British papers online) and to this day, I can’t go into a coffee shop in a distant town without looking for the free local newspapers; they’re the best way to catch the indigenous vibe. In Vermont, I was far from disappointed, acquiring at a coffee shop in Rutland, on the long drive north, both the two-part Vermont weekly Seven Days and a special, marathon edition of the monthly Vermont Sports.
Seven Days is much as you’d expect – some local politics, movie and music reviews, cartoons, a handful of promo interviews and a bunch of personal ads – but the standard of journalism is encouragingly high. This interview with Dave Wakeling put me in a better mood about the “English Beat” show that was taking place a few hundred yards from my Best Western the day after I was leaving town, and this piece about local food entrepreneur Samosaman reinforces what a great country the USA can be when it allows immigrants to make the most of themselves.
Vermont Sports is also a real treat: not just a collection of race results and retail ads, but full of well-written and frequently witty columns. Ryan James Leclerk references both Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie in a piece on why he can do any which sport except running; from the opposite perspective, Mark Aiken explains why he and his wife co-ordinate their holidays around local marathons; and Peter Loeschle MD goes into detail about Overtraining Syndrome, of which I’ve been guilty in the past. All these pieces are archived online; go visit.
And then there’s the seasonal Vermont Commons, living proof of the Green State’s outsider status. (When the back-to-the-land movement took hold in the 70s, following the urban hippie comedown, many on the east coast headed off to Vermont.) The first line of the first essay on the front page reads “What will you eat if Vermont secedes?” The last line of the last page reads, “We had a chance. But Obama & Co. blew it.” The 22 pages in-between offer much more of the same, most of it on the conversation of “Re-skilling” – a leftist word for survivalism. All of it is written in a mostly intensely intellectual style that should put instant lie to any idea that this is Vermont’s equivalent of the Socialist Worker. Though I didn’t agree with all the opinions, it was almost reassuring to know that even in a left-wing State, with a leftist president in office, dissension lives on so strong. By the way, I picked up Vermont Commons at…
2) City Market/Onion River Co-Op
Burlington’s equivalent of Whole Foods (except that it’s Community Owned), a megastore devoted to the notion that “fresh is best” and “organic is fantastic,” but one that, like many other supermarkets outside the repressive retail rules of New York State, also sells wine and beer. (And plenty meat and fish, too.) I didn’t see much by way of wine bargains (and not much to interest me in Vermont’s own wineries), but I was able to pick up a sampler 12-pack of Otter Creek’s beers to bring home with me. Oh yeah, and food: City Market was but a half a mile from my hotel, enabling me to get in a proper vegan meal without dealing with the Saturday night (running) crowds downtown. I was particularly taken by the vegan macaroons (made with coconut and maple syrup) from the On The Rise Bakery in nearby Richmond, and loved the fact that the store hosts a weekly brunch event with live music. Like Whole Foods, City Market was not exactly cheap, but it was a welcome one-stop for someone determined to watch what he ate (and treasure what he drank) while out of town.
3) Burlington Records
I came across this newly-opened store on Bank Street, in the middle of downtown, walking back to my car after the race. As you might sympathize, I was a little too worn out to fully enjoy it, but I was still mighty impressed, not only by the fact that a vinyl/ analogue equipment/concert poster store would open in the middle of a recession and in the onslaught of the digital age, but that it had so much good music to offer. (Any store with a Joey Heatherton album in the window is doing something right.) Quite where the shoeboxes full of Jamaican 7” singles hailed from I don’t know, but I’d have been tempted to cart them off for the hell of it if not for the price: $3 a pop. Nothing wrong with that of course (nor with the fact that old soul 7”s were selling for $5-$10), just that it indicated one area where Burlington Records is absolutely tuned into the modern age: no store owner worth his security deposit puts something on sale these days without checking its value on the Internet. From the customer’s point of view, though the prospect still exists of finding a rarity, there’s little chance of finding it at bargain price. That said, Burlington Records offers secondary services such as vinyl to digital transfers, and DJs for hire. It also boasted one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life, who was busy sampling 12” dance records on the Technics with her friend: a proper way to spend a Sunday lunchtime. It wasn’t until I got back to my hotel that I realized my own face was streaked white from the sunstick I’d smeared across it five hours earlier. Why is it, I ask as an important aside, that Americans will so readily inform you that you’ve got a crumb on your upper lip but let you run an entire marathon looking like you dipped your face in a bowl of coconut milk?
4) Magic Hat Brewery
Like many who noticed it on tap in New York City over the last decade, I fell in love with Magic Hat’s #9 the moment I tasted it, though I admit that the novelty of its apricot infusion has worn off over time. Still, I’ve always been taken by Magic Hat’s good-natured lunacy, and once I got to Burlington I understood that it must be something in the local ice cream: this city is the home, after all, of Ben & Jerry’s. On Monday morning, I decided to stop in at the brewery, just a couple of miles south of town, and was happy to find it already busy and bustling by the time I got there shortly after its 10am opening. Being Memorial Day, the brewery itself was not working, but the self-guided tour was informative enough: I particularly loved learning about the Mardi Gras that Magic Hat sponsors in what is still the depths of the north-eastern winter, yet which draws 20,000 people onto the city’s icy streets.
And I had great fun working my way through free snifters of the dozen or so beers, from the smooth, British lager style of the Single Chair Golden Ale and the founders’ first beer (officially retired but recently rebrewed for the fun of it), Hocus Pocus, to the hoppy Lucky Cat Irresistable Pale Ale and the highly hopped H.I.P.A., the flavor of which was positively jumping out of the glass. The Magic Hat pioneers are carefree enough that they also bottle a Beet-Red Summer Wacko which I found a little too fruity, and another seasonal beer made with poppy agave. (The microbrewery movement in America is going through a craze for craziness, and as long as they don’t stop making the IPAs, I welcome them to indulge their eccentricities.) The one I brought home a freshly poured growler full of, and to my own surprise, was the newly brewed Odd Notion Summer beer, a Belgian Blonde packing 5.9% alcohol. I’m not always a big fan of Belgian beers, but this one was clear and crisp, fruity and spicy, with hints of apples and pears, so precise that it was almost like sampling a fine wine. The Brewery was staffed by hipsters straight out of Central Casting, but that was actually a welcome relief, as I’d always suspected (accurately, in fact) that Magic Hat was founded by Deadheads, and anyway, the drinks were free (my requests for just half a snifter going unheeded), the ladies were friendly, and, at least on this occasion, the Dead were nowhere to be heard and instead the punk rock was turned up loud.
5) Shelburne Vineyard
A few more miles down the road and I was in Shelburne, a town with several notable attractions of its own, including a world-famous museum. The Shelburne Vineyard would love to add itself to that list, especially given its brand new winery and tasting room. Now, Vermont’s brutal winters don’t allow for much by way of vinifera vines, but a quick look at the vineyard’s web site before setting off on Monday assured me that the winery was trying its best to match its climate with suitable grapes, while also making wine with grapes from further afield. Unfortunately, many of the wines I was hoping to try were either sold out or still in barrel, but the staff was super friendly with their commiserations and encouraged me to work my way through the portfolio.
I skipped on the Pinot Gris (grapes trucked in from the Finger Lakes) and Merlot (from Long Island) and focused on the predominantly home-grown wines. A Cayuga, blended with 15% Riesling and 10% Chardonnay, was loaded with citrus flavors, very tart and dry, and would function fine in a picnic environment. The 100% Chardonnay – grapes from neighboring southern Massachusetts – boded well for Shelburne’s actual winemaking, though I was not so taken by the Côte de Champlain, similarly dominated by Cayuga with a touch of Chardonnay, but fermented to allow for some residual sugar: I found it almost fizzy and unpersuasive. I was much more impressed by the Lakeview White, an unapologetically semi-dry wine that adds miniscule quantities of Gewurztraminer and the hybrid Louise Swenson to a 75% Cayuga /19% Chardonnay blend to offer up an applish nose, good acidity, and some sweetness on the palate that suggested nothing so much as a quaffable lunchtime semi-dry Riesling. (I was far from surprised to find this to be Shelburne’s most popular wine.) Of the four late harvest and ice wines that are a specialty of cold areas, the only one not sold out (an encouraging sign from Shelburne’s perspective) was the Vermont Nocturne Late Harvest, made from pure Vignoles; I didn’t get quite as much tropical fruit as is usual from this lovely grape, and of which I’ve had some splendid examples in the Finger Lakes, but the acidity and sweet textures were otherwise in harmony.
The only wine I picked up to bring home was the one that most emphatically and eccentrically spoke to the area: a Whimsey Meadow Rosé that blends across Interstate and International boundaries: 41% Montreal Blues (a hybrid, but of course) from Quebec in Canada, 39% Frontenac (another hybrid) from New York, and 20% of the winery’s own, Vermont-raised Côte de Champlain. A bright salmon color, the wine started off full of strawberry shortcake flavors, offered an impressively Provencal-like mid-palate, and finished off with copious taste of cranberries. We opened it at home that night; by the second glass, I found it almost sickly sweet, but bear in mind I was on my Marathon comedown by that point. Either way, at $13, I found it sufficiently unique to merit the purchase.
By this summer, Shelburne Vineyard ought to have its first home-grown Riesling, Traminette, and Gewüzrtaminers all on sale. They’ve also planted the hardy Austrian red grape Zweigelt and, though it’s been hard work bringing it to harvest, have some in barrel waiting for bottling. Wish I could have tasted it. Though the wines I did sample weren’t spectacular, still I liked Shelburne more than I’d expected and hold out high hopes. One of Shelburne’s three vineyards is all organic, by the way; the winery itself is bright, airy, inviting and friendly.
6) The Essex-Charlotte Ferry.
Driving up to Vermont, I took slow, scenic Route 7 north-east from Albany. (Don’t do what I did and trust Google Maps; I was subsequently informed all round that Route 22 would have been much quicker and no less attractive.) For my drive home I opted to splash out and take the $10 ferry across Lake Champlain from Charlotte, just south of Shelburne. I was on the ferry within about 15 minutes of parking up; we had 20 minutes sailing across the lake in beautiful sunny lunchtime weather, upon which I was the dropped off in Essex, not England but in the heart of the Adirondacks, I87 then taking me almost all the way home through mostly green verdant land. Talking of green, in our climate-change-fearing society, driving has become a conceit, a luxury, a guilt trip. There are many ways to devastate our planet, and using precious fossil fuels to drive the kids to school when the school bus is free, or to drive to the local shops when one could surely walk, is surely among them. But that shouldn’t take away from how much pleasure can be had from taking one’s battered old Saturn – 105,000 miles and counting, and capable of 40mpg on the highway, not that General Motors ever advertised that fact loudly enough – through the Adirondacks on a pristine Memorial Day, windows rolled down, The Best of the Stone Roses turned up, with a (sealed) growler of freshly poured beer in the back and the satisfaction of a weekend well spent. Thanks, Vermont, for making me feel adored.