By Amanda Renkiewicz
Lavish, excessive, and fantastic beyond words. Our thrilling weekend escape to the seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island, continued with the Saturday Grand Tasting on the Marble House Lawn. The Preservation Society of Newport County acquired the famous Vanderbilt property in 1963. The home represents wealth beyond imagining, yet was called a “cottage”, as detailed in the mansion’s history by the Society:
“Marble House was built between 1888 and 1892 for Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt. It was a summer house, or “cottage”, as Newporters called them, in remembrance of the modest houses of the early 19th century. But Marble House was much more: it was a social and architectural landmark that set the pace for Newport’s subsequent transformation from a quiet summer colony of wooden houses to the legendary resort of opulent stone palaces.
Mr. Vanderbilt was the grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who established the family’s fortune in steamships and the New York Central Railroad. His older brother was Cornelius II, who built The Breakers. Alva Vanderbilt was a leading hostess in Newport society and envisioned Marble House as her “temple to the arts” in America.
The house was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt, inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. The cost of the house was reported in contemporary press accounts to be $11 million, of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Upon its completion, Mr. Vanderbilt gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present.
The Vanderbilts had 3 children: Consuelo, who became the 9th Duchess of Marlborough; William K., Jr., a prominent figure in pioneering the sport of auto racing in America; and Harold, one of the finest yachtsmen of his era who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times.
The Vanderbilts divorced in 1895 and Alva married Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt. After his death, she reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs, where she hosted rallies for women’s right to vote. She sold the house to Frederick H. Prince in 1932. In 2006, Marble House was designated a National Historic Landmark.”
Prior to our travel to the East Coast, we booked our room at our favorite friends’ Tiverton craftsman style residence, a smaller home than Marble House, but with legendary hospitality. We even had the audacity to send them a red carpet, to ensure that they understood the tone of our visit. The laughter never let up, from our 8 am arrival on Thursday, to our 4 am departure on Sunday. As VIP ticket holders (really the theme of the entire trip was VIP), the four of us hastened to the Grand Tasting’s early admission to start the adventure as quickly as possible.
Over 100 wineries were set up for multiple tastings. It was to be our finest hours, what we had trained for and aspired to since our early days of oenophilia. We were the greatest advocates for each winery, unwilling to ignore any, in our quest for complete dominance of the event.
And by God, we succeeded.
We adored every second of four outstanding hours of magnificent wines from around the world. There was fabulous food from local, regional, and national chefs, artisanal food purveyors with specialty products, cooking demonstrations, interactive activities, and an exquisite ocean view. We first walked through Marble House in a daze of excitement, dazzled by the entryway, its shining chandelier, and the curving staircase. As an homage to Beaux-Arts architecture and neoclassical French architectural forms, the home is inspirational in its unattainable beauty. With the dripping wealth so apparent on every gleaming surface, Marble House seems impossible to have been a family residence with growing children and areas to play.
Outside of the staggering luxury of the home, the calming sight of the ocean played a serene parallel between natural and manmade beauty. The biggest tent in the history of time was sprawled out over the massive lawn, allowing for rows and rows of wineries and represented restaurants. The heavily attended event might have been overwhelming to a first-time attendee, but our years of event training had taught us how to make the most of endless wine tasting. With plenty of space to zip around to open tasting spots and a personal goal to eat my weight in lobster, we tasted, learned, and tasted some more. It was a more chaotic, flamboyant event than the refined Wine and Rosecliff Gala, but was outrageously fun. Everywhere you turned was another winery, and I thought with a clear moment of insight that I had indeed reached heaven.
Among the marvelous displays, a few standouts were worth visiting multiple times. In a simply cool outdoor setup, Knob Creek’s cocktail bar looked like it always resided on the bright green lawn. With its own individual smokers, their staff placed your drink order within each device to gain the fresh, smoky flavors of scented wood. It was a thrilling change from wine and much appreciated by the crowd of men looking for bourbon. Another interactive display included the “Brocktail Bar”, where attendees made their own cocktails, adding fruit, simple syrups, mixers, and a choice of liquor. Wildly interesting wine regions kept peak interest, like Segal Winery from Galilee, in Israel. While Napa and the Willamette Valley regions were well represented, European wines from France, Italy, and Spain were beautifully presented and offered old world varietals.
The weather could not have been more divinely gifted to us: a perfect, bright day with a small breeze to carry in the salty scent of the ocean over the cliffside. Each vendor enthusiastically offered more wine or exquisite food samples, as we continued through the event. Our glasses and hands were rarely unfilled, and the good company and laughter did wonders for our souls. The entire day was a lesson in abundance and exorbitance and was perhaps a true indication of what living like a Vanderbilt was like during the opulent Gilded Age.
Type in “Wine Tasting” on gathergrandtraverse.com for more local wineries and events in Northern Michigan.