Natural wine boasts minimal intervention, but promotes maximal conversation. Malolactic? Carbonic? Stems? Skin contact? All anyone wants to talk about when they drink natural wines is how they were made. Deconstruction among professionals is necessary to flesh out a precise vocabulary, develop palates, and make good buying decisions, but gratuitous geekery has now spilled over to the general public, abetted by rock star sommeliers, trendsetting distributors, and deferential beverage press. For many, wine is no longer a delicious bottle to accompany your meal; it has become the equivalent of one-upping your friends with arcane indie rock knowledge. The more far-out the methods or maker, the cooler. But fads, by definition, do not endure. Quality does.
The reality of growing and fermenting is a lot more nuanced than the orthodoxy around natural practices allows. "Taste should inform your palate, not the story. If it tastes like shit, it tastes like shit, " Zak Pelaccio says, "You're looking at the fruit and the best representation in your mind of that fruit in the bottle as a beverage." Steve Wood, legendary cidermaker from Farnum Hill in Lebanon, New Hampshire, who has an old-world sensibility and appreciation for understated winemakers, agrees. "People who want you to rave about what brilliant winemakers they are, are by definition going to be in the way of the grapes." He admires those who make breathtaking wine, but don't want you to talk about it. "Their inherent pleasure is to enable conversation, not to be the focus of it."
Eleanor Ledger from Eden Specialty Ciders in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom perceptively chimes in. "If you want to be totally natural, just let it turn to vinegar. That's where it's headed. If you want the fruit to express itself, you have to intervene somewhere." Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cidery in the Hudson Valley nods, smiles at his peers, and gets up to open another bottle of cider. For cider, not wine, is the subject of the conversation we’re supposed to be enabling.
Steve, Eleanor, Andy and I had gathered to taste and talk cider with Zak Pelaccio, chef and co-owner of Fish & Game, beverage director Mike Rice, co-chef Kevin Pomplun, and Peter Barrett, editor of this quarterly, at Fish & Game's new Back Bar on Warren Street in Hudson. Steve and Andy’s ciders are the only two from the U.S. currently on Fish & Game's beverage list, and each represent radically different styles and methods, so it made sense to invite them. It was also a potentially dangerous ploy given Steve’s outsize influence and general skepticism, which is why Eleanor’s keen sensibility and diplomatic disposition was the perfect foil.
Unless you've had your head in the sand, you've probably heard that cider is becoming popular again. This revival and news about cider being "the fastest growing beverage category" the media like to tout? It's mostly referring to industrial swill made out of apple concentrate from China loaded with sugar: as much of an agricultural product as Pepsi. That has not always been the case, however. Homesteaders in colonial times were required to plant fifty apple trees as part of their land grants; the fruit they grew were tannic and sour "spitters" made for drinking, not eating. This rough, homemade drink was safer than water, so everyone drank gallons of the stuff, even children. At around five percent alcohol, you could drink it all day long without falling off your wagon.
It's this kind of old school cider that got Zak hooked. Six years ago in Vermont he met Bob, a Harvard grad and banker turned dropout, who popped open a few bottles of cider he had made from some old apple trees growing on his property. "It was lean as fuck, to the point, and so refreshing." Zak loved it so much he took a few cases home. “On my days off, I'd wake up, have a glass in the morning with breakfast, feed the chickens. Come back, have another glass. Go forage. Come back and have another glass. It felt so good and healthy. I became addicted," he says. As with all addicts, his habit grew, and soon he needed more than Bob could provide. Now Zak and the Fish & Game crew go up every fall to ferment their own batch with some of Bob's juice. "It's just a bunch of cooks making something we like to drink," he says with a grin. This year, they’ll make their first cider from apples growing around his farm in the Hudson Valley.
American cider, having recently woken up from a 100-year Rip Van Winkle nap, is still in diapers so it's hard to know what it will be when it grows up. Right now it’s the Wild West out there. The handmade end of the spectrum teems with diversity: ciders fermented with hops, ciders aged in bourbon barrels, some made in the traditional French or Spanish or English style, and others infused with every flavor imaginable. With many choices and few rules, it can be hard to navigate this new landscape. Brennan, who has no time for fads, produces a line made entirely from foraged wild fruit; at the end of the day, it’s all about the apples. "You can't just pick a style, you have to follow the seasons, the fruit. It's not like beer," he says. "You can be influenced by someone else, but in the end, if you're not paying attention to what you're doing, to what the fruit is doing, and your own relationship to it, it won't be any good."
No serious conversation about cider can take place without Steve Wood, a towering figure in the community who started working in his family's orchard when he was eleven years old, eventually buying the farm in 1984. By then, Steve and his wife Louisa had already seen the dessert fruit market tank, so they decided to take a gamble on growing cider apples. They grafted some domestic heirloom varieties, plus many English and French cider types (which, rumor has it, Steve smuggled in as seedlings after a trip to France and England's cider regions). Forty years in, he has been at it longer than anyone else, but as far as he’s concerned he’s just begun. "I've been stumbling around the same dump for a long time. But a few decades is nothing. Look at Burgundy,” Steve says. “They've been doing it since the twelfth century and they are still figuring it out. It takes a long time to learn this stuff."
Name-checking one of the oldest and greatest winemaking regions in the world is a tall order for a humble drink. Even the traditional ciders made in Europe's apple growing regions—like Asturias, Normandy, Brittany, and the West Country of England that all boast centuries-old traditions—are usually more rustic, farmhouse beverages drunk by old folks rather than hipsters. French cider often has the distinct aroma of cow shit. Spanish and Basque ciders are so acetic they will strip the enamel off your teeth. Traditional English cider, known as scrumpy, is bought in jugs straight off the farm. They may have complex aromas and a pleasing balance of tannins and acid, but none have anything approaching the subtle nuances of Burgundy.
That doesn’t mean Steve won’t die trying. “I'm going to be dead before I discover to my satisfaction how to get out of the way of the fruit and make something truly delicious.” His approach to achieving consistency and a recognizable profile year after year is thanks to a rigorous blending and tasting protocol honed with the same group of tasters over decades. "They're not using scientific tools to measure," Eleanor explains with obvious admiration. "They are tasting and relying on memory, their palates, and a rich vocabulary to take incredibly detailed sensory notes. It's remarkable. I don't know of any other cidermakers who do this."
We get a window into this process with a few still tank samples Steve has brought for us to try. The first is Ribston Pippin, an old English eating apple used to give an acid kick to their blends. "There is all kinds of cool floral stuff in here, but there are also some things that make me nervous." Steve finds that certain level of reduction diluted in a blend is not a bad thing, but too much and it will mask the fruit he has taken such great care to show off. "Ribston almost disappears after you put it in our mouth, but then it comes wandering back. This has acid over bitter for miles," he says. We taste and spit while he continues his discourse on acid.
"Unlike grapes that have multiple acids, apples only have malic acid, but they come in a myriad of packages. Wickson, Ribston Pippin, Ashmead’s Kernel, Esopus Spitzenberg have almost the same titratable acidity. But the flavors and aromas of their juice and of the stuff post fermentation are miles different. Ribston is floral, Ashmead even more so, Wickson is grapey, Spitz sort of vegetal," he continues. He knows his fruit like a lover with many mistresses who can identify the subtle variations and properties that make each unique. But don't call him an artist.
"It's hard to get really good at something. It's a lot of work and we should be satisfied to just honor the work," Wood says. “If you have some sort of objective and refine that by what you learn in the course of working that should be enough. People start talking about 'our soul is in this bottle.’ Bullshit. My palate is in the bottle, yes, but it has developed thanks to years of hard application, and I'm satisfied with that."
That kind of philosophy makes sense for a man who has spent most of his life working land in the flinty state of New Hampshire. Wood’s father was fanatical about teaching his children the value of hard work, and clearly his eldest son absorbed those lessons. But catch him late at night and this Harvard medieval history grad is likely to spout Hume and Kant while discussing the ironic notions of seventeenth century metaphysical poets. He may not like to admit it, but Steve's ciders are, like the man himself, disarmingly straightforward yet profoundly nuanced at the same time.
Brennan's approach is more instinctual. For him, apple trees are spiritual beings with whom he has a deeply emotional relationship. I've seen him cry when talking about certain trees. We’ve held hands together as we sang and danced around an ailing elder called Harriet on his homestead in the dead of winter. It’s a sensibility befitting his vocation as an artist.
"2014 was a terrible year for apples, but it was good for pears," Andy says as he pops a bottle of his Homestead Choke Pear, so called because their skin is so tannic that you'll gag if you bite into one. Since he uses only foraged fruit for his line of Homestead Ciders, he has no idea what he'll be making from year to year. We also try his 2014 East Branch cider from apples foraged on the backside of the Catskill range that drains into the Eastern part of the Delaware River. It was the first time he'd foraged in that spot because the only wild apples he found last year were high up the slopes. "We don't have varietals to work with since we never know what we'll find from year to year," he explains. "If I don't want to direct and the variety isn't going to direct it, then the location ends up directing it."
Andy's cidermaking method is equally low key. "We ferment using a yeast we've been cultivating for six or seven years. I'm not sure if it's living on the equipment or is just in the environment. After I've pressed the juice, I put it in an open barrel and dump in a bottle of last year's cider to start the fermentation." When Steve asks incredulously if the yeast is still alive, Andy replies, "I'm not sure. I think the yeast is dormant, not dead." He doesn't really know and isn't that interested in analyzing. What matters are not his methods, but that his ciders are a pleasure to drink. They are expressive not just of a particular location or a certain kind of apple, but of Andy himself: wild, rustic, full of yearning for a bygone time. No one else could make these ciders. With his tousled hair and ripped overalls, Andy’s romantic appeal has made him a media darling. The scarcity and variability of his ciders have helped, but it's not affectation; Andy is the real deal and his ciders reflect an earnest authenticity that people swoon for.
We taste Zak's ciders next, made from Bob’s apples. They use an old screw press, put the juice in stainless containers, then gravity feed the result into old sparkling wine bottles from the restaurant with a little sugar to carbonate it. Steve finds the 2013 has "wicked legs" and the 2014 is a little reductive but more complex. Then he drops a penny into Zak's glass. Stressed yeast tend to fart, ergo the reductive aromas, and adding copper neutralizes the problem. Apparently old wineries had brass pumps because the wine picked up a little copper to deal with any flatulent yeast.
"It's not a commercial product, so we can mess around," Zak says. "The worst that can happen is we end up cooking with it." The acetic notes, considered by some to be a fault, become a lot more appetizing when matched with succulent fatty pulled pork pretzel sandwiches he brings out for us to eat. To Zak, cider is not about perfection, but about the joy and pleasure it brings. "Maybe I approach it with lower expectations because I drink a real farmhouse cider that I love. I have grown to crave the acidity, the simplicity. It's like a health juice. I drink it with toast and jam in the morning." He's like a modern-day homesteader, albeit one who is an acclaimed chef with a refined palate and a groundbreaking restaurant in the Hudson Valley.
Standing apart is Eden Ice Cider’s line of exquisite ice ciders, aperitif ciders, and recently sparkling ciders as well. They were the first to introduce ice cider outside of Canada (where it was invented) and pioneered an entirely new category of apple aperitifs in this country. Eleanor opens a recently bottled Orleans Herbal made with the liquid that remains after they've frozen the pressed juice outside and drained out the high sugar elixir for their ice ciders. The Fish & Game crew take a sniff and try it for the first time. They like what they taste. "Hyssop!" exclaims Kevin after the first sip. Eleanor tells him he's one of only two other people who identified the herb. He also pulls out the basil notes, understanding why Eleanor used it since both herbs are in the mint family.
Eleanor and her husband Albert purchase their fruit from nearby orchards since ice cider favors dessert apples, but in 2014 they made a dry cider out of a field blend from their own crop of acid and tannic varieties they planted in 2010. It made enough juice for 250 gallons, so they were game to experiment. "We pressed the apples, put it in our basement, and did a spontaneous fermentation,” she says as we sniff and sip. “It's got some faults that would improve with some minimal intervention, but there is great fruit behind it." Zak agrees and offers to buy the whole lot as is. A flaw to some is clearly an advantage to others.
As Steve, our Oracle of Complexity, reminds us: "Famously successful spontaneous fermentations happen mostly in the old world because those places are already inoculated. They are using a once cultivated strain that won the battle years ago and colonized the area.” He just wants neutral yeast that will ferment to dryness and get out of the way. "We tried spontaneous a long time ago, but I'm not interested in finding out what ambient yeast will do. It's not disdain; I just don't want to fuck around with another variable. I've got enough already with the fruit and the year, and if I understood those perfectly, I'd probably be fiddling with something else."
Natural winemakers talk a lot about wanting to get out of the way to let the grape express itself. Does Andy better express the fruit he finds because it's wild and he just lets it ferment in open barrels with some luck thrown in? Is Farnum Hill's cider less authentic because Steve wants to exert more control? Terroir, after all, is not just soil and climate, but a trinity that includes the individual who is interpreting those variables and expressing them in the glass. As with wine, where that line of intervention falls remains open to interpretation, fuel for many more discussions. But the drinker’s pleasure should remain paramount. With any luck, as it returns to its rightful place as America’s table wine, cider’s humble nature may provide some immunity to the preciousness that often attends wine drinking.