ON THE SCENE: Remembering wine aficionado Terry Robards

Terry Robards talks about wine. (Provided photo)

Sherman Marshall “Terry” Robards, author of the groundbreaking “New York Times Book of Wine,” wine critic for the Times and later the New York Post, columnist for the Wine Spectator and other wine industry journals, radio host and founder of Terry Robards Wine & Spirits in Lake Placid, died peacefully on May 23 in his Upper Jay home surrounded by family at the age of 84.

More than anyone else, Robards switched Americans’ wine preferences from Blue Nun, Cold Duck, Gallo, Lancers and Mateus to an appreciation of the six Noble Grapes and the great wines of France’s Bordeaux region, Italy’s Piedmont and Tuscany, the emerging high-end wines coming out of Napa Valley and other great wine-making regions of the world.

I first met Terry in the mid-1970s; he was then the columnist for the Times who led wine tastings for top industry purveyors from the Four Seasons, Maxwell’s Plum, Tavern on the Green, Twenty-One Club, etc., held at such locations as the Windows of the World (I then was with the Purple Foot). Aside from wine, Terry and I shared a love for the Adirondacks. He then had a place on Big Wolf near Tupper Lake and a fondness for eating at Red Lafountain’s Steak and Stinger restaurant.

“I’ve known Terry for about 50 years,” said Red. “Our beginning common interest was wine, and after that, he became a customer in the restaurant. We looked at the hospitality industry through the same eyes: food and wine and the service itself. He looked at things differently and approached the wine industry from a different direction. I’d push him. I’d say, ‘Jesus, Terry, this is grape juice, very fine grape juice, but still grape juice.'”

In many respects, they bonded through doing joint charity events for local nonprofits held at private homes, Red doing the cooking and Terry providing the wines. While they enjoyed the accolades and fun of working together and helping local charities such as animal shelters and the Lake Placid Sinfonietta, these events inspired people to dine at the Steak and Stinger and, for Terry, to expand their taste in wine.

Terry Robards and his wife Julie (Provided photo)

Scott Peterson, who now works for Weygandt Selections, started with Terry shortly after he opened his Wine & Spirits shop across from the Olympic Speedskating Oval. At the time, Scott was working part-time in a wine shop in Plattsburgh, and he overheard distributors talking about Robards.

“They said, ‘Oh, this big shot thinks he can open a wine shop in Lake Placid,'” said Scott. “They were betting against him. One gave him two years until he was out of business, and the other gave him six months. They thought it was impossible to have a fine wine shop in Lake Placid, in the Adirondacks, that nobody would buy the wine, nobody would buy high-end Bordeaux and similar wines.”

Scott, who loved the mountains and wine and knew about Terry through reading the Wine Spectator, placed his bet and future on Terry. With his background as a business reporter (for the New York Times), he had a viable plan. Scott also thought that Terry had staff lined up, but he sent Terry a letter and got an interview. In time, Terry hired Scott and taught him how to manage the store while teaching him about wine and the importance of spitting out wine at tastings so your abilities and head remained clear.

“Our shared vision was to enlighten the whole community about wine so that people could find incredible wines at an affordable price,” said Scott. “He wanted people to know that fine wines didn’t have to be expensive; fine wines could be the best wine value, that every person could afford fine wines. He got the idea while living on Big Wolf. He thought it was ridiculous that he and his neighbors should have to bring cases of fine wine up from the city, that they should be able to purchase it locally, and locals should also be able to afford fine wine no matter their situation.”

Scott also said that Terry loved to prove many assumptions about wine were wrong, not just that fine wine could be affordable. One was that Beaujolais nouveau is best only just after its release; he loved surprising people with its lovely fresh taste two years in the bottle.

Tim Robinson and Vanessa Scovell. Tim, Terry Robards’s stepson, is the manager of Terry Robards Wine & Spirits in Lake Placid. (Provided photo)

Robards also knew that opening a store wasn’t enough. For it to be successful, he had to educate the wine distributors, who would, in turn, educate others in the hospitality industry, from hotel and restaurant owners to those who managed bars and wine shops.

“When Terry came to town and opened his store, we knew about wine, but we were pretty basic in our knowledge for the most part,” said Chuck Stewart of the Winebow Group. “Terry took us to the next level. He didn’t challenge us; he introduced us to wines of the world and opened up that avenue for all of us. He raised the bar through the Beaujolais and other wine dinners, the tastings and other things he did to start changing our thinking about wines.”

Robards mentored many others about wine, such as Caleb Smith, but no two had as big of an impact on his life as he did on theirs as his wife Julie and her son Tim Robinson, who manages the store now located on Saranac Avenue. When they met, Julie was a jug wine aficionado, but in time, like Terry, became inducted into the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, Burgundian Wine Society, and, in many respects, a better wine educator than Terry. With her background as an antique dealer, musician and entertainer, Julie fully embraced his passion for wine. As it turned out, she and her son could taste and remember the nuances of wine.

Terry’s death hit them and his sons, Jeffery and John, hard. Julie lost a best friend, a lover, a partner and a soulmate, and Tim a friend, a dad and a mentor, and for both so much more. The gift they gave Terry, along with their love and his cherished home in Upper Jay, is that his vision and store will live on, still making fine wine available for people of all income levels.

“Terry was a decent man, a gentleman,” said Julie. “He was kind, reserved, and loved his family so much. He showed me respect, love and acceptance. He was my partner for 20 years, and we were apart from each other very few times, especially when I had to be with my parents.”

Terry died confident that his store was in good hands and that his stepson Tim would carry it forward as a place that continued to educate people about wine, made fine wines accessible and supported local causes.

“Terry believed that your existence is meaningful based on what you bring to the world; in French, it is called your cicatrice, your scar,” said Tim. “He made a difference in so many ways.”

“Terry was so full of knowledge and so fun to be around,” said Tim’s partner, Vanessa Scovell. “He wasn’t afraid to have his own opinion and share it, but he always did it with a bit of taste; he was always elegant and diligent. Terry was a wonderful man.”

“He started it all. He was instrumental, and he was the writer who introduced Americans to fine wines,” said Stewart.

The celebration of Terry’s life will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 22 at the Heidrick- Zaumetzer Funeral Home in AuSable Forks.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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