Ralph Gardner, JR: Robert Morgenthau's Hard Cider
Among the perks of being an empty nester is that you’re not enslaved by your children’s school calendar. When our daughters were younger we left the city as soon as school was dismissed Friday afternoon and returned Sunday night.
These days we get to linger in the country longer: we’re often on the road upstate by Thursday evening, and don’t return until Monday.
A few months ago, I had lunch with someone else who divides his time between the city and the country -- former Manhattan District attorney and Hudson Valley farmer Robert Morgenthau. I asked him when he leaves for upstate?
Friday afternoon, he told me.
And when does he come back to town?
Sunday night, he said.
Why don’t you stay longer, I asked?
By the way, Mr. Morgenthau is 97 years old.
And I wasn’t trying to impugn his stamina. I just find life more gracious the more time you spend upstate, particularly when you don’t have to endure the stress of traffic Friday and Sunday night.
“I’m too busy,” the former DA told me.
And he is. He’s an attorney with the prestigious law firm of Wachtell, Lipton where he’s currently working on an Alabama death penalty case. He’s trying to correct what he has described as an egregious violation of law that put a man on death row 28 years ago.
He’s also on the board of the Immigrant Justice Corps. It was started in 2014 and is dedicated to giving immigrants high quality legal representation.
Oh, and he’s the chairman of the New York City Police Athletic League and chairman emeritus of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. And he was recently also grand marshal of the Veteran’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue.
And then there’s Fishkill Farms in Dutchess County. It was started in 1914 by Mr. Morgenthau’s father -- U.S. Treasury Secretary under FDR Henry Morgenthau, Jr. These days the farm is run by Robert Morgenthau’s son, Josh.
But the old man – I use the term as a colloquialism, not to suggest the former DA is in any way past his prime – is still very much involved with the farm’s apple orchards and it’s bustling farm store.
On peak autumn weekends, he greets visitors, the line of cars waiting to pick apples sometimes snaking back all the way to Interstate 84.
In fact, a few weeks ago I called Robert Morgenthau and suggested we get together. I was seeking perspective from somebody whose vocabulary doesn’t include the word retirement. This was after the Wall Street Journal abruptly folded its Greater New York section, and with it my four-day-a-week column.
Mr. Morgenthau’s perspective came in the form of an email from Josh: “I hear you’re working on a piece about hard cider,” it began.
No I wasn’t. I don’t believe the words “hard cider” crossed my lips, or his dad’s, during our brief phone conversation.
But Fishkill Farms had recently started producing a high-end cider called “Treasury” and Robert Morgenthau apparently wasn’t one to let pass an opportunity to promote it.
So we got together a couple of weeks ago with Josh in his father’s impressive midtown office. It’s filled with photographs. They include a somewhat younger DA with President Lyndon Johnson – “When I was sworn in my second time,” he explained. As well as with JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.
By the way, there are newsreels, shown at the farm on “Founders Day” in June, that include one where the future DA, in his Navy whites during World War II, is serving mint juleps to FDR and Winston Churchill.
But Mr. Morgenthau wasn’t there to reminisce. He wanted me to sample the hard cider. It comes in several varieties, both still and sparkling.
“Thomas Jefferson and George Washington all drank hard cider and made it themselves,” he told me. “I figure if Thomas Jefferson can do it, I can do it.”
I confess I’m not much of a hard cider fan, preferring beer. Or better yet single malt scotch. But Treasury cider tasted different. More like a fine wine, or champagne. To complete the effect, it comes in champagne bottles with champagne corks and wire fasteners.
The Morgenthaus sent me home with a few bottles that I put before a panel of experts – my wife and daughters.
They were impressed, judging it superior and less sugary than other hard ciders they’ve tried.
Back at Mr. Morgenthau’s office, I realized seeking career advice would be futile. The former DA’s energetic presence, his success at remaining part of the conversation, is all the advice one needs.
But I decided to broach the subject anyway.
So he told me: “You quickly go to seed if you stop working. You literally go to seed.”
Did retirement ever cross his mind?
“Never,” he said.
And then, as if to prove it, he returned to the cider.
“The still or the sparking are very good with a meal,” he said.
Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.
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