Ralph Gardner Jr: Alpaca Fluff

Feb 23, 2019

Suzanne Werner among her alpaca
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

Empty nesters typically move from the city to the country in search of a quieter, more contemplative, perhaps even more sedentary lifestyle. Suzanne Werner is not one of those people.

A former C.I.A. lawyer – that would be the Central Intelligence Agency not the Culinary Institute of America – she and her husband Bob, also an attorney and an expert on money laundering who held senior positions at the Treasury Department and in the private sector, dreamed of lives that revolved around community, nature and animals.

“Do you want to open an inn, a bookstore?” Suzanne remembers asking her husband. “He made the mistake of saying yes.”

Only they didn’t open an inn or a bookstore. They started an alpaca farm. Oh yeah, and then they bought an existing alpaca products store on Warren Street in Hudson, NY, Spruce Ridge Alpaca, renaming it Fluff.

This is where I come in. I like to think of myself as something of a connoisseur of socks. And in my humble yet considered opinion, alpaca socks are some of the coziest, most comfortable I’ve ever had the pleasure to have worn. Just as caressing as cashmere but far more durable.

Suzanne concurred when I visited her on a recent sunny Saturday morning at Green River Hollow Farm in Hillsdale, NY. She shares the place with her husband, of course, but also with thirteen alpaca, a llama, a donkey, two Icelandic horses, and numerous chickens.

Before braving the outdoors to visit the animals I wanted to discuss her socks. Not hers but Fluff’s.

“People are crazy about the socks,” she confirmed, sounding somewhat mystified. “It’s a little bit of a cult item.”

She said she didn’t quite realize the passion socks could arouse when she bought the store last April from Steve McCarthy and Jeff Lick, owners of Spruce Ridge, an alpaca farm in Old Chatham; they also became her mentors, in both retail and alpaca husbandry. “’No, no, you don’t understand,’” she was told. “’People really like them.’”

She said she has customers who come in and buy $500 worth of socks. She stocked up last October – the socks are made in Peru – but had pretty much run out by the holiday season and had to reorder.

“I’m ordering all the colors in everything,” she promised.

I’d wanted to get together with her for a couple of reasons. I have a passing interest in alpacas – they seem somewhat otherworldly creatures; but I also wanted to lobby Suzanne to expand her sock color palate, if possible.

As soft and lovely as they are, in extra large they’re pretty much limited to the predictable colors – black, grey, red. Though the red is pretty cool.

But as Suzanne acknowledged unprompted conservative clothes sorts such as myself, sartorial stick-in-the-muds as it were, unleash their inner freak through their socks – purples, cerulean blues, pinks, yellows and stripes in various and sometimes counterintuitive combinations.

“People express themselves with socks,” the lawyer – she served as chief of the Chinese language branch of the East Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations – told me as she pored through her inventory on her computer. “We have extra large purple.”

I politely disagreed. I’d visited Fluff and lamented that while I’d spotted purple socks in ladies sizes there were none that catered to the oafish size 12 male foot.

But she was essentially correct as I confirmed last week when I combined a visit to Fluff with a tasty Neapolitan mozzarella di bufala pizza lunch a few doors down Warren Street at Oak Pizzeria.

While Fluff didn’t carry the purple dress sock they did in the thicker “sport” model.

I’m skeptical of thick socks; they make your feet sweat. But these garments were cloudlike; they felt like walking on air.

I’m not too proud to quote better, more poetic writers than myself, of which there are sadly legion. And I don’t think I can put alpaca’s magical properties any better than the label on the socks.

It reads, “The temperature difference between day and night in the Andes can be severe (up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit in a 24-hour period.) Alpacas have adapted to this climate by developing a fiber that can keep them warm in the freezing Andean nights as well as cool and comfortable on a warm day and scorching Andean sun.”

Which brings us to Green River Hollow Farm’s alpacas and how they fare in the Hudson Valley’s perhaps somewhat less temperate climate.

Suzanne told me they’re fine in the cold but added, “They’re not really. We bring them in the barn when it’s really cold.”

Indeed, her learning curve has included repairing electric water heaters.

We visited the barn and the doe-eyed South American camelids. They look so cuddly, like the life-size Steiff animals they used to sell at FAO Schwarz, that you want to hug them.

“They look cuddly,” Suzanne warned, “but they don’t really like to be touched.”

Among several rules I religiously adhere to regarding other living creatures is honoring the wishes of those who prefer not to be hugged. So I didn’t.

Suzanne told me among the gifts her alpacas bestow, besides supplying yarn used to make her store’s hand knits, is the sense of tranquility they lend to the landscape. “In the summer,” she said, “we sit on the porch and watch them move across our field.”

Under the protective eye of their donkey, Lulu, who polices the perimeter of the property while their llama, Trixie, guards the alpacas.

Ever wonder the difference between a llama and an alpaca? “She’s smarter, braver, ” Suzanne said of Trixie. “And twice as big.”

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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