The Wonderful Wünderbar
Wednesday, January 23, 2019
Written by John Bleh
The place to see and be seen—tales from Sugarbush’s first après-ski hangout
For those of us who choose the skiing lifestyle, there may be something that’s even better than soaring down the slopes—après-ski, when you brag about the day’s exploits, numb the pain from that fall you took, and meet other like-minded snow enthusiasts. There’s a sense of family in the après scene, of camaraderie.
And nowhere is that more apparent than at the Wünderbar, one of skiing’s oldest après hangouts, and Sugarbush’s first. Warren resident Cherri Sherman worked there in the early years. (She still has the dirndl uniform she wore as a waitress; with its traditional navy bodice and patterned skirt, it comes in handy at costume parties.) “The Wünderbar was a place to see and be seen, to meet people,” she says. Chan Weller, who worked for Sugarbush Ski Patrol and in the resort’s PR department for over two decades, remembers, “There were a lot of great bars in the Valley, but you definitely wanted to be seen at the Wünderbar après-ski, especially if you were single.” Damon and Sara Gadd, Sugarbush’s owners in the Wünderbar’s early years, would grab lunch and drinks there every day in the same booth against the windows. “Sara and Damon were always first in line to get in, and they’d always order martinis and then a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé,” says Holly Meystre, aka “Shortwheels,” who was a waitress there in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Since this was during the “Mascara Mountain” days, when celebrities regularly flocked to Sugarbush, it wasn’t unusual to see someone like Paul Newman or Kim Novak dining there. “People would be pounding on the door to get in for lunch and start drinking,” reminisces Ed “Detts” Dettor, who was the bar manager during that same period. The bar was so busy, it even had a bouncer.
Wünderbar waitress Holly Meystre, aka “ Shortwheels ”
Initially, the Wünderbar was located on the main floor of Valley House Lodge, in what is now the Blazer Room, a short walk up the hill from the base area. It was split into a larger room and a smaller room, each with its own bar. (Today the Wünderbar is on the top floor, and is one big room.) When things got really busy—as they often did—the staff opened up the second room. In the main room, booths lined the windows, tables stood in the middle, and the bar was set against the wall.
It was busy but manageable on weekdays. Weekends, however, were absolutely jammed. Today, the Wünderbar still gets crowded on weekends and holidays, but is typically closed midweek. (Ski demographics have shifted, with more skiers coming in for weekend visits rather than staying all week.)
Former Wünderbar bartenders Tommy Gamble (L) and Walter Hensen (R)
The drinking scene was different then too. In the early years, Wünderbar staff typically prepped fourteen gallons of Bloody Mary mix for busy days—and they’d fly right through it. On those days, it was often so crowded that the staff had trouble maneuvering around the floor. “One time I spilled a whole tray of drinks on this woman,” laughs Meystre. “We had them send a bill to Damon.” Hot buttered rum was a popular option, with a special house-made mix. Toward the end of the day, the ski instructors, many of whom were Austrian, would come in to drink Aquavit and scope out the social scene. “But there was still plenty of beer—Molson was the popular choice,” says Walter Hensen, who worked the smaller back bar for a few years in the late 1960s. The Wünderbar certainly still goes through plenty of alcohol, but leans toward the modern craft beer trend.
And the food? Today the bar serves quick and light fare: sandwiches, soups, salads, and nachos. But back then? “Most importantly, there was fondue,” says Sarah “Sally Roses” Mehegan. (She too spilled drinks on a customer, thanks to the crowds—in one case, she dropped a tray of Bloody Marys all over a woman in a completely white ski suit.) Also on the menu, she recalls, were steak tips, burgers, and a club sandwich. Mehegan specifically remembers the head cook, Henry Perkins, who ran a tight ship. “Back then the kitchen was on a separate floor, so everything moved via dumbwaiter. Every day Henry would yell at us, ‘Keep the dumbwaiter moving!’”
Even though it was a tough job—and for most staff, it was only one of several jobs—they all have fond memories. “There was a real sense of belonging and contributing,” remembers Mehegan. “It was a fun and loose environment, not too corporate, and that’s what people wanted,” says Dettor. Sherman recalls, “It was really happening here; I couldn’t believe it when I first showed up to the Valley”—comparing the Sugarbush scene to urban nightlife. And that sense of community hasn’t faded with time. “Everyone still keeps in touch, which is incredible fifty years later,” Meystre says.
Interestingly, the Wünderbar was a name that almost wasn’t. As Weller explains, “Back when Sugarbush was creating the bar, the state wouldn’t let you use the word ‘bar’ in a name. You couldn’t call something ‘John’s Bar.’ Sara had to convince the state that Wünderbar was one word—a German word—and it wasn’t something like “the Wonder Bar.” (Wünderbar is German for “wonderful”—a fitting name, both then and now.)
The original Valley House with the Wünderbar on the main floor
After the glory days, the Wünderbar went through some dark years, falling out of favor with the ski crowd. But in 2011, when new staff came in—including the current manager, Emily Etesse—the Wünderbar once again became a place to see and be seen after a day on the mountain. Now you’ll find some of the most dedicated Sugarbush faithful up there: parents of children in the seasonal programs, weekenders looking to avoid the crowds of Castlerock Pub, and those not ready to take their ski boots off for the day. Even John Egan and his Bush Pilot coaches regularly frequent it as their favorite post-ski haunt.
It may not be crowded enough now to need a bouncer, but the Wünderbar still offers that sense of belonging and celebration. You’ll find great après music up there on busy weekends, and perched up above Lincoln Peak Village with great views over the Valley, it’s the best spot to enjoy fireworks and pond skimming. The staff members no longer wear dirndls, but they find other ways to have fun, with zany outfits and color-themed weekends. And you can bet that this year will bring plenty of chances to commemorate Sugarbush’s sixtieth anniversary at the Wünderbar, building new memories at one of the oldest ski bars around—maybe with a Bloody Mary or two.