The apples for North American Press’ cofermented grape cider come from an 80-year old organic dry-farmed Gravenstein orchard in the middle of a butterfly sanctuary in western Sonoma County. Owner Matt Niess is one of many wine makers fermenting whatever fruit the land uses and blurring the line in between craft cider and white wine. Ellen Cavalli and Scott Heath of Tilted Shed may be the de facto leaders of this troop traipsing into the woods looking for wild grapes, forgotten vineyards and deserted orchards.
Jason Charles of Vinca Minor Red wine in Berkeley got into apples after smoke taint badly affected his red grape harvest in 2020 (the apples didn’t show results from the smoke). Cassidy Miller, his assistant wine maker, was inspired by the experience to start her own label, Buddy/Buddy Red wine, focusing on apple, pear and grape coferments. And Rosalind Reynolds, assistant wine maker at Pax Mahle White wines, located in The Barlow– a mixed-use space in Sebastopol that once housed an apple-processing plant– ended up being interested in co-ferments after tasting Tilted Shed’s, ultimately leading her to explore the other fruit in the wine making process with her label, Emme Wines.
All of them talk of the focused flavors and phenolics and increased tannins from the skins of dry-farmed apples in such a way that is immediately familiar to anybody who has ever heard a similar argument applied to grapes. Take one bite from a Gravenstein newly pulled from a limb in the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens where Niess gets his apples, and you’ll get the idea. Then drink Wildcard, his coferment. It’s a flavor fueled by the flap of butterfly wings and tangles of wild grapes growing in gullies.
Niess brought his structural engineering degree and restaurant industry experience to Radio-Coteau, a Demeter-certified Biodynamic vineyard and winery (that also produces Eye Cyder seasonal ciders) in Sonoma County where he worked for ten years prior to striking out on his own to concentrate on native and hybrid grapes. “Everybody’s talking about regenerative farming,” he states. “However why are we not discussing this universe of grapes that have this truly profound illness resistance due to the fact that they evolved in a lot more damp locations, so they’ve developed to combat the mildew?”
Illustration by Enya Todd
Both Niess and Scott and Ellen from Tilted Shed forage their wild grapes “ethically,” recognizing that what they are harvesting is a wild food source, they take no greater than 30% from a vine and leave the rest to regional wildlife. “I ‘d drive around with pole pruners in the back of my truck,” states Niess. “If I saw wild grapes on the side of the road, I would simply pull over.”
“There are wild grapes that grow on the side of the road in here,” Cavalli states, indicating a co-ferment called Feral, that, like most of these mashups, is spontaneously fermented with wild yeast. “You can taste the place, because you’re not going to be able to discover this anywhere else.”
In the springtime at Hallberg, when the apple trees flower, there are butterflies all over, pollinating the trees. “You actually get a sense of this pollinator habitat and how the orchard can exist side-by-side when things are farmed responsibly with an actually biodiverse residential or commercial property like this,” Niess states.
The orchard is a holdover from the prime time of Sebastopol’s renowned Gravenstein, when 13,000 acres were planted in Sonoma County. Today, many have actually given way for grapevines and there are only about 700 acres left. “To see the variety of old orchards bulldozed and after that converted to vineyards has been painful for us to watch,” states Cavalli. “All the apples we utilize are dry farmed. They do not require much at all. They do not get smoke taint. They do not ask for anymore water. They’re pretty illness resistant and hearty.”
“I wished to make something that wine people might value due to the fact that it has wine aspects,” states Rosalind Reynolds. While grapes and wine are her main focus at Emme and Pax, she hopes to shift a little of individuals’s taste and attention and show that cider can be as improved and sophisticated as white wine. “It’s a pity to rip out old, stunning carbon sequestering, dry-farmed orchards to plant Pinot vineyards that require a shit lots of water,” she states, sounding quite like Ellen Cavalli.
This post initially appeared in the November 2022 concern of White wine Lover publication. Click here to subscribe today!
Published on October 19, 2022