I planned a short road trip. It did not go as planned.
If this sounds like I’m shilling for my adoptive state of Maine, I am.
You can skip to the bottom for the wine notes.
The Golden Road in Maine is a private logging road open to the public, almost 100 miles long, from Millinocket west to the Canadian border. I’d been on a few short stretches, mostly either consolidated dirt or stone, comfortable at low speeds. I love isolated places, wanted to do the whole route. My friend Eileen would come with me. We would drive to Millinocket (the town nearest Katahdin, my touchstone mountain), spend the night. The next day, drive the Golden Road into Canada, go to Lac Megantic, a beautiful, unchic resort area south of Quebec City, then return home the next day through Farmington, ME.
We were to leave Wednesday afternoon. Then I realized that the Friends of Baxter State Park were holding their first live annual meeting at Flight Deck Brewery, only a few miles from my home. I put departure off until Thursday.
We set off Thursday at 1PM in moderate rain. It quickly turned torrential, just as I realized that I had left without my passport and vax certificate (needed to enter Canada). Back we went and waited out the deluge, leaving only two hours late, still enough time to get there before dark. Started on I90, got off at Newport for back roads I hadn’t seen through Dover-Foxcroft and Milo. This is a beautiful part of Maine, sparsely populated, not prosperous. The rain was supposed to stop where we left the interstate. The forecast was off by 100 miles and two hours.
Millinocket itself does not have hotels or restaurants above the basic level. The Appalachian Trail Café is wonderful, as welcoming as could be, with excellent, fortifying food. It is not open for dinner. I reserved the Big Moose Inn, a charming, hardscrabble, quaint, no-nonsense hostelry with surprisingly good food and wine, and almost all creature comforts (the stairs are a good warm-up for hiking Katahdin; there’s hot water after 15 minutes). It is midway between Millinocket and the Katahdin road.
The Golden Road starts on Route 11, just before you get into Millinocket. I missed the turnoff, went back, found it. Unlike the sections I’d driven, this was severely rutted, compounded by the recent inundations. It was still raining. I went in about a mile. Eileen, who is a trouper, said that if she could get out and walk back, she would. I turned around and went to Big Moose through the town.
The Big Moose Inn is as easy as your favorite old sweater. Eileen said it reminded her of Dietjen’s, in Big Sur. This is high praise for people who value inns of character. Our room, once we climbed to it, was warm and comfortable. Everything worked, including wi-fi (rare in northern Maine).
The restaurant, Fredericka’s, is unusual if not unique in this part of Maine for having rather upscale food. Nobody was in it. The Loose Moose Bar and Grill was hopping. You can have anything you want from either menu in either place. We ate bar food in the bar. Eileen had a Caesar salad and french fries. The Caesar had all the right ingredients, nicely fresh, it came undressed, with a plastic thingie of vinaigrette. So be it. The fries were above average. I chose a Thanksgiving sub, made with their own roasted turkey, a mix of dark and white meat, and their home-made stuffing. Yes, thank you very much!
The wine list has about a dozen wines btg and forty by the bottle, topping out at $40 (for urbanites, that’s $40/btl). I splurged at the upper end with 2021 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc for $38. Yes, thank you very much! We polished it off.
Non-commercial post: I imported the next wine, no longer have any commercial connection:
Upstairs I opened a bottle of 2012 Mas de Bertrand Saint-Saturnin, a monument made from centenary Carignan.
We showed up for breakfast; fresh fruit, some muffins, juices and yoghurts in the fridge. Breakfast sandwiches available.
Would I like one? Yes please.
How would I like my egg cooked? Over easy.
The griddle was about 18 inches behind my chair. The egg came from about 18 yards away. Not so the ham, or the square of white American cheese, or the english muffin, but hey!
We left at 7:45, drove 10 paved miles to where the Golden Road and the road to Katahdin branch off. Same monstrous wet ruts. I actually was not on the Golden Road, which I only realized when I got home. I’d driven this section before, think it would have gotten better in a few miles before the Abol Store and trailhead, but really didn’t need any prompting to turn around. Wait ‘til next year!
We went back through Millinocket and back south on Rte 11. We turned on the Katahdin Iron Works (KI) Road. This is an old logging road, unpaved but consolidated and solid. It is still in use, jointly owned by a timber company and the Appalachian Mountain Club. It runs almost 40 miles from Ebeemee Township to Greenville, crossing the toughest section of the Appalachian Trail, known as the 100 mile wilderness. This is a stunningly beautiful, harsh landscape, probably the most isolated place east of the Mississippi. For those with a taste for gorgeous, isolated country, the Appalachian Mountain Club has two lodges in this area, Little Lyford and Gorman Chairback.
We hit pavement a few miles out of Greenville, the biggest metropolis (almost 2,000 people) on Moosehead Lake, the biggest mountain lake in the East. Covering well over 100 square miles, it features 700 foot Mount Kineo, dropping straight into the water. It is so big and isolated that lakefront property is available not only to billionaires, but millionaires and even thousandaires. We drove the western shore to Rockwood, headed to Jackman, then across into Canada (Province of Quebec), then southwest to Lac Megantic. Even though it’s southern tip is only a few miles from the U.S. border, this resort community is resolutely French-speaking, drawing working and middle-class people from metro Quebec City.
After some research, I’d booked the Captain’s Suite at Auberge et Chalets sur le Lac. From their website, it is clear that the hotel has aspirations. They offer a “Captain’s Wine Cellar’ with over 400 bottles. I was hoping this meant 400 different wines. It did not. They also offer, subject to availability, house-smoked meats. There was some availability (yay!).
The room was as lovely as I hoped, with a huge bathroom and double-sized jacuzzi. I couldn’t get the heat to work (it was slightly cold and really windy when we arrived). The hostess kindly showed me which of the six potential heat sources functioned. It eventually got the bed area up over 60°, but the gorgeous sitting area with the panoramic lake views never quite got there. The separate heat in the bathroom was a respite.
Before dinner, I visited the wine cellar. The selection was probably about 40 wines, not 400, and slightly bizarre. Sorry, I’m not paying $175 (prices in US$) for a current vintage of Caymus Cabernet. I wanted better than the 2019 Domaine La Montagnette Cotes du Rhone (wonderful wine I used to import), even though it was a steal at $21. 2018 Fontanafredda Barolo was too young, but good with some air and fine value at $54.
The dining room is rustic but attractive. The bar is part of it. So is the spectacular lake view. So is the crooner singing old Beatles and Stones with an excellent voice, too loudly, with too much vibrato.
The expectation of food in Quebec (outside of some high-end restaurants in the city) is for hearty portions that can be heavy, with lots of flavor. Yes. But maybe a little better.
Eileen started with a Caesar salad, quite good, better than at Big Moose and with a real Caesar dressing versus a small plastic tub of vinaigrette. She accompanied that with Bonbon Bacon, cubes of house-smoked bacon with an Asian sauce that wasn’t too sweet. This was really good.
Before the red, I had a glass of 2020 Robertson Chenin Blanc from South Africa. The generous pour cost me over $5, or almost a dollar an ounce.
My appetizer was puff pastry with snails and a wild mushroom sauce. The pastry wasn’t very puffy, in fact a little tough-y, the snails were fine, the sauce was packed with wild mushroom flavor, the texture was from the school of library paste. Just what I expected, but actually a little better.
My main was house-smoked brisket. This was a huge portion (I’m having it again for dinner tonight) sliced over world-class French fries. The meat was moist and tender, suffused with smoke, no other seasoning, very flavorful, there was an accompanying roll to make it a sandwich. This was accompanied by five garnishes, none of which I wanted. Red cabbage was red cabbage. Pickled hot peppers weren’t very hot but didn’t have much flavor. Pickled red onions were fine, but not what I wanted. Cheez Whiz. Barbecue sauce that probably was made with good maple syrup, but was too sweet. Just the meat, please (and the fries!).
Breakfast starts at 7:30 in season. But the season was over. We dropped off the key and headed out. 15 miles to the US, beautiful virtually uninhabited country. You are driving through the Appalachian Mountains (literally). Chain of Ponds, between Coburn Gore and the Sugarloaf Ski Resort looks like a Swiss fairy tale. This is the Carrabassett Valley, where America raises Olympic skiers who are not from the Rockies.
South of Farmington we stopped for lunch at a new, wildly popular restaurant in Wilton, ‘Salt, Pepper and Sugar too’. Packed to the gills at 11AM on a Saturday, we waited for the lunch menu. Eileen had their ‘Zoodle Noodles’, zucchini and soba noodles with veggies in an Asian sesame peanut sauce. My meat loaf was worthy, but the fresh green beans were perfect and the mashed potatos even better. The wine list was adequate and reasonably priced, but not after that much driving, with more ahead of me. Of course local Maine beers are prominent, although the crowd seemed more wine (and mimosa) oriented.
2021 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley - This is textbook, with lovely fresh aromas of mingled grass and hay, with green herbal hints, enhanced by a complete lack of grapefruit. The palate has some heft, but a little more would have been nice. The balance is excellent, there is finesse, but a lack of intensity keeps it short of excellence. Rated 88, drink up.
2012 Mas de Bertrand, Saint Saturnin - Deep, opaque color. The aromas are burly, reminiscent of a throwback gnarly mountain Zin, with pungent raspberry, a hint of sage and minerals and earth entwined. The palate is vigorous, with abundant fine tannins and a core of acidity, but the texture is not harsh. The finish is long. This is still rather primary, but already a pleasure. Rated 91.5, up to 3 points of improvement likely over 10 years.
2020 Robertson Chenin Blanc, South Africa - Pale straw color. The aromas are easy to like, with flowers and a hint of honeydew. The palate offers a pleasant texture, not a lot of intensity but good balance. This is a semi-serious quaff that brings a smile. Rated 88.5, drink up.
2018 Fontanafredda Barolo - Pale garnet color. The aromas are quite open, quite floral, pretty, with red cherries and a nice offsetting green streak. The flavors are a little tight and abrupt on opening with minerality almost taking over for the fruit. Over some time, this starts to open and broaden. My first 2018 Barolo, it’s good wine, but seems almost inconsequential. Rated 87, can hope for 5 points of improvement over 10 years.