Serving as a Victorian-era icon on Lake George since 1883, The Sagamore Resort sure holds a lot of history. But did you know that, during the mid-to-late ’80s, one of the country’s now top vintners served as the resident sommelier here? We take a walk down memory lane with Joseph Carr of Joseph Carr Winery and Josh Cellars.
You may better know him as the man behind the brand of Josh Cellars, currently one of the nation’s top-selling wines that has skyrocketed in popularity, particularly during the pandemic (so much so, SNL recently featured the wine label in a spoof in which cast member Kate McKinnon clearly imbibes too much, famously quoting “I’m drunk. I think I had too much Josh.”).
But Joseph Carr isn’t just the face of Josh Cellars, which he launched in 2009 as a tribute to his hardworking father, Joseph “Josh” Carr. He’s also a Capital Region native, who grew up in the lumbermill town of Berlin, New York, roughly 40 minutes outside of Albany. And prior to launching his family-owned wine company, Joseph Carr Winery, in 2005, he spent 10 years working as a world-class sommelier for several high-class restaurants and hotels, including Opal’s own Sagamore Resort in Bolton Landing, New York, during the 1980s.
“Before taking the position, I had never heard of the hotel,” admits Carr, during a phone interview from his home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and his primary residence when he’s away from Napa. “Sure, I grew up in the area, but Berlin was a very blue-collar kind of town. Going to a grand hotel like that was out of my pay grade.” Still, he more than managed to hold his own. In fact, during his time at the resort (1986 through 1989), he won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for his wine list design.
So in honor of his recent success with Josh Cellars, which, no surprise, is the house wine served at The Sagamore Resort, we sat down with the acclaimed vintner to talk a bit about his path to the wine industry, while reminiscing a bit about his days back in Bolton Landing.
From Dance to Drinking Wine to Joseph Carr Winery
“My first real intro into the wine world was while I was attending college at SUNY-Geneseo [in upstate New York]. But I didn’t go to school for food or wine. I was there, at first, on a wrestling scholarship, but then the school cut the wrestling program, which meant I lost my funding. So to help support myself financially, I took a job as a busboy at a local historic restaurant and inn in Geneseo, where the owner took me under his wing and taught me all about fine wines, eventually leading to me becoming a wine steward there.
During this same time, I switched my education’s focus to fine arts, with a special interest in modern dance. Yes, that’s right, I studied ballet, even working at The Egg in Albany [a notable performing arts venue]. But I ended up tearing cartilage in my legs and not being able to dance anymore, so I had to switch gears again. Which brought me back to what had supported me through college: Wine. Having grown up in a blue-collar environment, where I drove a truck and worked in the woods, I always thought it was funny that someone would pay me to taste and talk wine for a living, but, despite that, I always really enjoyed it. So that led to my 10-year stint working a sommelier, followed by another 10 years working as an international wine executive. Eventually, in 2005, I set out to start my own company out of Oakville, California.”
This ad for Josh Cellars offers insight into the popular wine brand that is a tribute to his father, as well as a brief snapshot into his time at The Sagamore Resort.
First Impression of The Sagamore Resort
“I first came to The Sagamore Resort in 1986. Previously, I had been working as a sommelier down in Florida, but then my father became ill, so I returned to the area to be close to him. I didn’t have a job when I first returned, but Brian O’ Day, the then-manager of the resort, pretty much hired me on the spot. I was always very thankful for that. I remember thinking ‘What a beautiful, grand property.’ And I wanted to create a wine program that was just as grand.”
Creating a World-Class Wine Program
“The wine list at the resort was already very good thanks to the previous sommelier, but the food and beverage director, Tony Shill, really gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted with it. And what I was really excited about was the way the property already had amazing access to distributors and winemakers like I never had. So while we had all these really marquee wines, I also focused on refining the list to focus on great approachable wines at affordable rates, much like my focus is for my Josh label today.
“There was also a dining room at the clubhouse, which is perched on the resort’s Donald Ross golf course, where I created a small wine list that was themed entirely around animals – whether it was in the name or on the label. That’s because the menu, at the time, was very heavy on game dishes, so I had a blast finding great wines specifically under that theme.”
Interacting with the Guests
“Oh, yes, I was always out on the floor – and there were three dining rooms I serviced. I had four stewards who worked with me, but I was out there wearing my tastevin, tasting away and talking shop. [Traditionally, the sommelier always tasted the wine before serving guests, and the “tastevin” – a shallow silver cup worn around the sommelier’s neck – was the means to do that.]
As for notable guests I served wine to, there were several, including Jack Welch of GE (I remember him arriving via helicopter and landing on the 18th hole of the resort’s golf course), John Cougar Mellencamp, and Richard John Cyril Allen of Def Leppard.”
Fond Memories: “Family” Dinner
“One of my favorite memories was how, at the end of the night, Tom Guay [then the executive chef, but now the current GM at the resort], the Maître D [Henri Anatole], and myself would all have dinner together. Tom would whip us up something, and we’d eat and talk about our day while standing on the line or at a side station. It was five-star food, so I always ate well.”
In the Area of Bolton Landing & Beyond
“Bolton Landing was – and still is – a cute little community, where everyone knew everyone. And a lot of people were employed by The Sagamore Resort, so you’d go out and grab a bite at somewhere like Frederick’s, and they’d know your next paycheck hadn’t been cut yet, so they’d just start you a tab and have you pay next time. Everyone really watched out for each other.
Usually in the fall, when things started to slow down after the summer season, that’s when the staff got to let loose and have some fun. For example, as employees, we were allowed to play golf on the historic Donald Ross-designed course for free – that was such a perk for me; that 1928 course is such an asset to the property. Or we’d arrange to take someone’s boat out to one of the little islands in Lake George and have a party and cookout with food prepared by the line cooks. Sometimes, we even took The Morgan out [the resort’s own 72-foot replica of a nineteenth-century touring vessel]. Long story short: We had some great times. It felt like one big family. Whenever I’m in the state, whether passing through for business or pleasure, I always make a point to go back and visit.”
Where to Stay The Sagamore Resort