A peripatetic life filled with stonework and wine — and a wife from Buffalo

— Photo from Ed Cowley

A very rare 1878 bottle of Mouton Rothschild.

To the Editor:

When I was a young lad, I began working at The Altamont Enterprise on Thursday afternoons, and during the summer I did landscaping for Variety Gardens where I began working with stone and my life forever changed.

After Guilderland High School, I attended the University at Albany for two years and left my art studies to join the service with the New York Air National Guard for basic/specialty training. After five months, I resumed landscaping and ran a nursery on Route 20 for a couple of years before collaborating with Swasey Landscaping, in Voorheesville, where I operated the first hydroseeder in upstate New York.

During an unexpected five-year “vacation” in Georgia, working for my brother Paul, I expanded my plant knowledge and experience to include semi and tropical plants.

My meager economic situation led me to wine study not so much for the knowledge but to figure out a better way to “buy” attractive wines at a more affordable price. I founded the very popular and successful St. Simons Wine Coop and accompanying newsletter.

I even had an “editor” and a very vocal board of directors whose words I, of course, wrote myself.  We worked with dear friends Frosty and Donna Bearfoot, owners of the Guale wine shop named after the indigenous tribe which included Frosty himself.

The “Coop” was a not-for-profit venture offering single bottle case pricing in the same manner Empire wine discovered several decades later. My good friend Jack Griggs had a house on East Beach where the coop gathered for our annual “Best Value Beaujolais” party.

Jack was a very serious wine collector. He attended the famous 1970 wine auction of the Ten Broeck Mansion surprise find. For $50 I bought from Jack one of his “empties” — a very rare 1878 bottle of Mouton Rothschild.

My Dad’s extended clan was from Buffalo, New York. Many times, the family drove the long drive on Route 20 to visit my Dad’s folks. I knew we were close when I could see ahead the orange sky from the steel mills and smell their distinctive stench.

My grandfather loved to watch the Yankees play. My grandmother, whom I adored, was the world’s worst cook. She always told me to “come out to Buffalo and find yourself a nice Buffalo gal.” She was right! I did meet a nice Buffalo gal but not in Buffalo. Georgia!

Returning to New York, my new wife and I planned to relocate to Martha's Vineyard where I had spent much time every summer, but I got sidetracked and worked at New York Quarries for a couple of years, doing estimates, contracts, shop drawings, billing, specialty stone production, delivery, and installation.  

Very difficult and challenging work but I was rewarded with the opportunity on my own to figure out and learn the stone business.  

I wasn’t ”taught” the business. The largest project I worked on was a 250-student dormitory in Middlebury, Vermont. It was all stone, including a gable end structural arch with a 16 foor, 4 inch spring line. Each arch stone weighed 750 pounds.

Soon after, I went on my own into the quarry business, leasing three and producing three distinct building stones while simultaneously doing my own stone installations.

On the side, I had invested in an Oregon vineyard and winery. When their production passed 50,000 cases, I took advantage of an opportunity. As a full-commission broker, I established distribution in New England, New York, New Jersey, Bermuda, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Coastal Georgia.

I began to continually travel and work in my territories, leaving less time for stone projects. I soon exited the quarry business.

Besides being an excellent stone mason, I had developed over decades a personal interest in stone construction as well. During trips to Ireland, I found quarries and talked to quarrymen and marveled at the ancient stone walls, buildings, and bridges.

My favorite city is Paris. For a mason to stand inside Notre Dame and look up at the ceiling 100 foot above, there is no experience more humbling. The entire city is a study in stone. And it is clean!

Much of my work was in the Hudson Valley. I was always on the lookout for early stone homes. In fact, I actually worked on the restoration of the Coeymans House restoration, built c.1690 in Coxsackie.

Since March of this year, we have been in near isolation at our family homestead in Altamont and have hardly gone anywhere. This past week, our railroad crossing was replaced and the road closed, disrupting our usual route to the village now by a roundabout detour.

Returning from the village this past Saturday, I forgot about the road closure. Not one to turn back, I chose another detour route via Bell Road after seeing a garage sale advertised on Bozenkill Road.

It was such a nice day, we kept going past our turn on Bell. It was a ways but we finally arrived. Most of the items at the sale were kids’ clothing but I had a nice chat with the owner, discussing his new tractor.  I did find a very nice cookbook first published in Italy and then revised to English text and measures.

But my best and most interesting find was a brand new “used” book: “Historic Houses of the Hudson River Valley.” One of the 30 houses detailed was the Ten Broeck Mansion just a couple of blocks from the downtown Palace Theatre in Albany.

The book’s directory listed the address and most importantly, the phone number of the Ten Broeck Mansion: 518-436-9826. So, I thought maybe I’d give them a call? I did and left a message on their machine.

I always had wondered if the mansion had any wine or bottles left. My wife asked, “Why don’t we just sell our Mouton bottle?

My way of thinking goes like this:

— 1. I paid $50 for the original bottle;

— 2. The book on the historic Hudson Valley homes originally cost $55;

— 3. The brand new “used” book I bought for $1;

— 4. The transactions indicate a theoretical profit of $4 (with my rationalizing).

So if the museum at 9 Broeck Place would like to have an old bottle I just happen to have one nearby.

Ed Cowley


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