founded Sundström Cider in the Hudson Valley after ten years working in various sectors of the wine industry: as beverage director for restaurants, a portfolio manager for importers, and a harvest assistant/cellar hand at wineries in Oregon and Germany.
Sundström Cider focuses on select wild harvest apples, older heirloom and cider apple varieties, and several species of crab apples in an effort to make vinous, ageable ciders that speak of the place they come from.
The funny thing is, when I began pursuing the possibilities of producing my own cider I wasn’t even aware of the great cider renaissance that was beginning to take place in the United States. I was halfway across the world, working the 2013 harvest for Weingut Leitz in Rüdesheim, Germany. Amidst climbing steep quartz slopes to harvest some of Germany’s greatest Riesling, cleaning 60-year-old fuder, monitoring ferments of Spätburgunder, and having the fortune of drinking the greatest Rheingau Rieslings from the best historical vintages, I found myself questioning the potential of fermented apple juice.
In regions near Frankfurt (Rüdesheim is 45 minutes west by train) cider is ubiquitous; in bars you can find people ordering it almost as often as they order beer or wine. These ciders are decidedly simple—many people even mix it with wasser mit gas to ease through the day—but there is still something grippingly honest about the ciders of that region. There’s no cloying sweetness, no infused hops or ginger or whateverthehell. Their acidity is appreciated and enjoyed within the context of apple wine: apfelwein. Because of this basic respect and understanding, there is an encompassing sense of place within the cider of Germany.
Returning to New York, the future seemed obvious. I live in a state with diverse terroir, ideal for growing the world’s best apples, and the regional history of apple cultivation and fermentation is deep and rich, even if puritanical legislation leaves nearly a half-century gap in our story. The creative possibilities before me were impossible to ignore; so, in December of 2013 Sundström Cider fermented its first vintage. The focus was simple: produce a clean, delineated, vinous wine from apples that are historically important to New York State.
It needed be good, and above all it had to be pleasurable to wine lovers and novices alike. My ambition certainly reaches far beyond these elemental objectives, but these aspirations are a work in progress and largely awaiting changes on the agricultural side of the equation. By way of simple availability, and what now seems a stroke of luck, the 2013 vintage produced two bottlings blended from three apple varieties: Newtown Pippin, Northern Spy and Golden Russet. These aren’t “cider” apples, per se; they are american heirlooms, once widely grown in our state, that have the potential to produce very good cider, and in the case of the Golden Russet, great cider. With a little bit of keen observation and deft care for their natural evolution these apples produced vinous, complex ciders reaching natural levels around ten percent ABV, without showing any unwanted alcoholic heat. Yet as happy as these ciders made me they were clearly only the beginnings of greater possibilities.
In order to acquire a greater understanding of the fruit and its source, and in hopes of building better symbiotic relationships with apple growers, I decided to move. With the help of Fish & Game, where I spent a short time acting as wine director, I moved from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley in the Summer of 2014. God I am I glad I did. I barely even understand the me that once enjoyed living in “the City”. I don’t mean to denigrate it or anyone that lives there, and I take great pleasure in many people, places and things there, but that chapter of my life is closed.
The Hudson Valley is a beautiful place, full of bounty, with a new energy in its agricultural community that is exciting and healthier with each season. Additionally, throughout our region there is a growing number of compelling beverage producers: distilleries, breweries, and cideries. Despite said bounty I believe that we cider producers—namely those without our own orchards—are in an infantile situation that presently limits our region’s cider potential. Distillers here are world class, beer producers are world class, and Hudson Valley cider producers are at best just decent.
And I don’t necessarily say this in comparison to competitive ciders in the market, I say “decent” in light of what I see as a region’s incredible potential. There are too few orchardists growing apple varieties capable of producing excellent cider, and too few growers are considering the potential of the fermented end product in their orchard methodology; perhaps simply unaware that things like low pH, substantial ripeness and low vigor are the foundations of a better, healthier fermentation. This won’t change so long as the public continues to accept the standard industrial approach to cider.
Drink-wise, the public has grown up; they no longer accept this approach to wine, so why with cider? No one should accept that cider is at best a refreshing alcoholic apple juice, because it’s so much more. Cider is wine. In New York we are capable of making the world’s greatest ciders; in turn, hard working farmers are poised to earn what they deserve for their incredible work. Let us encourage that work by demanding more from our cider. It is, after all, a symbol of our legacy as Americans. It’s an invitation to joy and sharing. It’s a preservation of a point in time that transmutes our unique landscape and an incredibly diverse fruit into a conscious and sustainable way of being. All this, while still being simply a delicious beverage that gets us buzzed: an admirable attribute above reproach.