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Mohegan Sun WineFest 2014

(Bring sneakers and a pedometer)

Mid-January in New York City—a brutal January at that—and I’m blue. Can’t shake the post-holiday sensation of glut and bloat.

Like many city folks, my favorite form of exercise is walking, but the beloved sidewalks are uninviting and slow-going, even for this New England native. For my Ricardo, who uses a walker, the sidewalks are downright dangerous. Our legs gnarl. Cabin fever rages.

I dream of a stay at what the Italians beautifully call a hotel benessere--wellbeing. Our fall was quite fabulous, including a trip to Paris to see my brother knighted (for his contributions to the arts) and to both downtown Manhattan and downtown Chicago for the weddings of two of Ricardo’s grandchildren. We came home exhilarated but exhausted.

We need sun, wholesome food, a chance to stretch our cramped legs—without worrying that we’ll be snowbound at an airport on route. Why doesn’t someone invent a smart phone with a magic carpet app?

CEO Traveler to the rescue! We’re invited to cover the 11th annual WineFest at Mohegan Sun casino and resort in Uncasville, CT. If this doesn’t sound to you like benessere travel—well, it didn’t sound that way to us, either. But a weekend that loomed as wall-to-wall decadence turns out to be amazingly restorative, warming wintry spirits and sending us home pink-cheeked, not red-nosed.

Benessere at the Mohegan Sun WineFest, A-Z

Tuscany Restaurant
Credit: Mohegan Sun

Amtrak http://www.amtrak.com leads the transit pack in meeting and surpassing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations for travelers needing assistance, at least in our experience on the Northeast corridor. On Friday of the WineFest weekend (as on half a dozen other journeys) we approach Penn Station through the Jersey Transit entrance, on the northwest corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue. Before leaving the cab, I dial 212-630-6401, a number permanently on my speed-dial, to request wheelchair and baggage assistance. We descend one level in the elevator. Although it takes another call to conjure a helper, we’re lucky to draw Manny, who joins Ivan and Chris in our personal redcap hall of fame. Zigging and zagging, he gets us to the train on time and into forward-facing seats in business class. (The disabled seats face you backwards and put you opposite the restroom—rather not, thank you.) In New London, the super-affable ticket agent gets wheelchair and baggage across the tracks to the waiting stretch limo from the resort. You can also get to Uncasville via car, bus, Metro North, and charter flight to Groton-New London Airport. The latter for going home if you win big at blackjack. Otherwise, take Amtrak.

Ballo http://www.balloitalian.com Imagine being hungry after a day at a food and wine tasting? It happens. Comes 10:30 pm, and the need arises for simple, fresh, modestly artful fare. I’ve had a zillion skirt steaks and green salads; none better than Ballo’s. Is it the local beef? The fregola with butternut squash dice and sweet shallots? The doting service? Management offers superb mini cannolis because we’re discomfited by raucous music—such noise is a rarity at Ballo’s, we’re told.

Cabot Cheese http://www.cabotcheese.coop/ flexible cutting board in my swag bag—just the right size for chopping herbs. And lifesaving cubes of cheddar at the Grand Tasting on Saturday. See Cabot’s website for great wine pairing ideas—red and white, still and sparkling.

Dell’Orto Extra Virgin Olive Oils http://www.dellortooil.com produce a lemon oil that’s the only flavored olive oil I’ve ever loved. (Really, it’s not just because the proprietor comes around the display table to shake hands with Ricardo, whose maternal grandparents are also from Amalfi.)

Eight thousand wine glasses deployed for WineFest weekend! Don’t you love big numbers? A toast to the ever-cheerful bussers who ferry used glasses from the tasting arena to the kitchen and clean glasses back to the guests.

Food Should Taste Good http://www.foodshouldtastegood.com The sanctimonious brand name has always annoyed me, but, wow, do these folks know about crunch. Blue corn chips in our gift bag make a perfect pre-breakfast nibble with coffee.

Ghost http://www.jimbeam.com/jacobs-ghost The high point of the Friday night bourbon tasting: an oddly ethereal (yet punchy) see-through whiskey that we enjoy neat. Bonus: it earns me cred from my son-in-law the bourbon maven, who hasn’t yet tasted it.

Hartford Courant http://www.courant.com It was the morning paper when I was growing up in West Hartford, and I’m happy that it’s going strong in a world of disappearing ink. Best, it still carries Mary Worth on the comics page, and she’s looking good.

Icy landscape From our 16th floor room in the hotel above the casino and event spaces, we see gorgeous abstract monochrome swirls of frozen water: the Thames (pronounced Thames) River.

WineFest Grand Tasting
Credit: Mohegan Sun

Jasper White’s Summer Shack http://summershackrestaurant.com purveys briny sweet South Bay Blonde oysters, out of Duxbury Harbor, MA, for the WineFest. Or you may buy them at his big sprawling Summer Shack Express, the Mohegan Sun offshoot of his beloved Massachusetts fish houses. The lighting is dismal at the Summer Shack, and the ocean seems far, far away. Yet we so liked the oysters at the WineFest that Ricardo orders a half dozen when we hit Summer Shack for a late lunch. I make a nostalgic leap of faith and order fried belly clams. On a toasted, buttered, center-split roll. (How we New England natives carry on about that roll!) One bite, and I’m twelve years old, at sleep-away camp in Maine, stopping for road food after a trip to Old Orchard Beach. Amazing, these juicy clams! Worth the detour.

Kindness. The security staffer who walks us to Ballo’s, rather than just pointing out the way, when we were going in circles and it’s getting late. The server at the infinite, teeming breakfast buffet who rushes food and a coffee to-go-cup to our table Sunday morning, when we’re in danger of missing our ride to the train station. The concierge who locates a New York Times.

Lesley Stowe Raincost Crisps http://lesleystowe.com Hazelnuts, raisins, and bite-ability make these wee crackers perfect for wine and cheese tasting and almost anything else.

Mixology magic Absolute Tune http://www.absolut.com/us/products/absolut-tune/ Once a year or so, I want a Kir. Once every three years, a mimosa. Trust a cocktail in a bottle? Not me. Until I taste Absolute Tune at the WineFest. Ice cold, preternaturally refreshing, this blend of sparkling sauvignon blanc and Absolut vodka has to be quaffed to be believed.

Overload, sensory. A weekend at Mohegan Sun transports you to another planet. It has no sun. No moon, no stars. There is, in fact, no outdoors. The cosmos is within these walls. “Mohegan Sun”—and the elemental names given to the various casinos—are actually sly jokes. Earth? Wind? None of that. Even an indoor waterfall is flagrantly manmade. Typical of casinos everywhere, no windows, no clocks; the very laws of physics seem suspended here. The flashing lights and pulsing hum in the gaming areas let you know what it would be like to live inside a pinball machine. (Even if you don’t go into the gambling areas, you get the sensory spill.) The scrum of the WineFest is more of the same, plus it’s wham, bang for your nose and taste buds. It’s a muchness, and you have to choose: run away or submit. At first, I resist. I swallow aspirin, I nap. Then I take a cue from Ricardo and relax my defenses. Who knows? Maybe casino lights are the ultimate cure for Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Packing hardly anything! The dress code, where there is one, for WineFest and the top restaurants: “smart casual.” Reality: attire is decidedly casual. Swoon though we all do over old movies set in Monte Carlo, no gowns, black ties, or emeralds are in sight in Uncasville. I wear polished knee-high leather boots with my jeans, but I’d be fine in sneakers. Tastings are so packed, no one can see your feet.

Quintessential http://www.quintessentialwines.com I love a good sparkling Shiraz, and I’m impressed that Quintessential, a distributor focused ion family wineries, has the well-rated, bargain-priced Paringa 2012.

Room. We asked for an ADA accessible room, and ours has all we need for safety and comfort—and more: roll-in shower with stable bench, fold-down support arm next to the toilet, and a closet whose low bar puzzles me until I realize it’s meant to put hangers within easy reach of someone in a wheelchair. A first for us, the front door is powered by a push-plate on the wall. Hilarity: the plate is next to the bathroom and is supersensitive to touch, so the front door is accidentally activated several times when we are in our skivvies. Did you see us on YouTube?

WineFest Grand Tasting
Credit: Mohegan Sun

Soba noodles from Tisane. http://www.mytisane.com The folks at the tasting table from this Hartford fusion restaurant are so low-key, they don’t have menus or cards. But the silkiness of their cold noodles stays with me. The tastes are familiar—sesame, ginger, cilantro—but there’s something special going on here. Why didn’t Hartford have cool restaurants like Tisane when I was growing up there?

Todd English’s Tuscany http://www.mytisane.com The flatbread: omigod. Ricardo and I live walking distance from the chef’s Olives in New York, but this is our first taste of his food. And certainly not the last. A beet salad with goat cheese—a dish that’s too often pedestrian—is delicate and lively and just delicious here. If only we were hungrier. While open to the central pedestrian area, Tuscany manages to create a separate, very pleasant space.

UFO White beer http://www.harpoonbrewery.com/beer/10/ufo-white A beacon of hope that someday it will once again be summer, and beer with orange and coriander will be what we need to quench our thirst.

Vitamix https://www.vitamix.com About the roses in our cheeks? Much credit goes to Vitamix. We’d expected red wine, white wine, rose, and the gold-to-mahogany hues of beer. We weren’t prepared for green. But the Vitamix demo guy, a passionate old-school carny, casts a spell. We won’t escape until we’re juiced. Into his big pitcher go pineapple chunks (core attached—fabulous fiber), apple, orange, half a lime—peel, pith, seeds, and all, and then a blessing of spinach leaves. Whir! Tamp! Whir! Into paper cups go splashes of thick bright green liquid. It looks awful. It tastes likes life itself. My mouth dances. Muscles, sinews, synapses all over my body strike up an exuberant chorus. Then comes a mix of banana, citrus, ice cubes, and presto there’s an almost ice cream. When the kids grew up, I thought my juicer days were done. I am rethinking that thought.

Walking I’ve dreamed of a NYC indoor walkway with trompe l’oeil windows, variegated surfaces, hills and flats, friendly to walkers in all conditions, moving at all speeds—anything to keep us stretching our legs in bad weather. Mohegan Sun may not exactly fit that description, but with 350,000 square feet on the gaming floor alone, we do more walking this weekend than we have on any other weekend this year. We see folks in wheelchairs and on scooters, but for a game, toned person like Ricardo--an ex-jock and now a gym rat who has great strength but must walk slowly—the sweeping lengths of carpeted floor are a godsend. I’m amazed that management doesn’t give guests pedometers. It would be heartening to know how much ground—carpet—one may cover in three days.

X, Y, Z Have to leave some discoveries for next year, no? Dates aren’t yet set for WineFest 2015, but the folks at MoheganSun welcome your inquiries. http://mohegansun.com/events-and-promotions/schedule-of-events/sun-winefest.html for all the details on 2014 plus contact info.

Nancy Weber
Winter 2014