MIKE RICE

 


I walked through the woods to a clearing, where a circus tent peeked through the leaves. Under the tent there was a pot of chili, and a tray of cornbread. Next to that there was a bar, a loose and ramshackle collection of igloo coolers under a wooden counter, racks of glasses stacked on the trampled grass, and a small keg with a hand pump. Out under the autumn sky, a hodgepodge of spindled dining chairs littered the area in front of a small stage—a strained platform with string lights above. Beyond that there was a fire pit, with flames climbing upwards. Over a small ridge was another fire, taller, dancing. There was a magical warmth in the air.

I had arrived in Barnard, Vermont just a few hours earlier, jumping at the opportunity to come work the harvest and spend some time in the cellar at Fable Farm Fermentory. Fable is a collaborative effort of two brothers who came to this little valley in central Vermont a decade ago as vegetable farmers. As the seasons went on, and their vegetable CSA grew, they began to play around with fermentation. Why they started doing this seems to have as much to do with their desire to build community in this place as it does with an interest in winemaking. The CSA pickups became informal cider releases: a keg tapped and shared with the neighbors and supporters who were quickly becoming friends. These gatherings, which had started out in the backyard at an old house in the center of town, had grown over the years and were eventually moved up the road to the clearing in the wood.

The clearing is on the 300 acres of historic farmland the brothers work in collaboration with several other farmers. They’d handed off the vegetable farm to focus exclusively on fermentation, mostly of apples but also of grapes, and honey, and sap—of all of the sugar-bearing products of the fields and forests in their little valley. They’d also begun the long term project of planting an orchard from which much of their fruit will eventually come. Each week, as the vegetable farmers hand out their CSA shares, and the meat farmers serve dinner made with the meat of their beloved pigs and cows, and the dairy farmers scoop bowls of their sweet ice cream, the Fable boys open up their ramshackle bar, and facilitate the merry-making.

It happened that the day I arrived at Fable was also the last gathering of the season. The cabin that I’d call home for the next few months sat perched on the other side of the road from the clearing in the woods, up above a big old barn, underneath which sits the cave and cidery. The cabin has no electricity or water, but it does have an old wood stove for heat and cooking, and a view straight up through the valley, north and east, to the White Mountains, which were already capped in snow when I arrived.

After jumping in to help out behind the bar early in the evening (I suppose it’s just my nature), I joined the others gathering up around the larger of the two fires. Around it, people took turns picking tunes on fiddles and a chorus joined in to sing along. The crowd seemed to have literally come out of the hills - it was made up of law students from up the road in South Royalton, and neighboring farmers, and part-time residents who had been drawn to this valley from Boston, New York, even LA. All sipped the cider that had come from the old apple trees that line the dirt roads here like weeds.

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And, I noticed right away, all seemed genuinely present. Very few cell phones left their pockets. Everyone was there, for this somewhat unimaginable fairytale gathering in a clearing in the woods. It was, I thought in the moment, exactly the kind of thing I’d always pretended happened in Hudson, but in fact rarely did. Maybe this kind of presence now requires the journey northward by a few more hours, away from the noise. I was happy to have found it, or had it find me, and I drank cider and danced around the fire until the wee hours, before wandering back across the road and up the hill to my little cabin. I hadn’t started a fire in the stove earlier, and under the impossibly starry October night sky, the cabin should have felt cold. If it did, I didn’t notice.

I awoke the next morning and did what I’d do for most mornings over the next few months. I’d descend from the sleeping loft into the one room below, and build a new fire or add logs to the embers from the night before. I’d boil water for coffee, and brew enough to fill my thermos, before heading the couple hundred yards downhill to the barn, where the crew would gather for the day’s tasks.

In those first weeks, there were a couple of grape harvests to be done, which was of particular interest to me. For the first of them, it was a small group: just Chris and Johnny, the brothers behind Fable, and myself. We headed just a town or two over, to a small parcel farmed by a friend. The land was owned by some old time Vermont farmers, who lived in the house across the street, but the vines were tended by the young organic grape farmer who lived in the tiny trailer beside the vineyard. A perfect picture of this corner of the world.

We harvested grapes there, and started getting to know each other. Chris and Johnny, farmers at heart, cider makers by trade, just entering the often enjoyable, often ludicrous world of (as they, and I too now, fondly call it) “grape wine” peppered me with questions about the New York natural wine scene, and restaurant wine sales. And I wanted to learn everything I could about these grapes we were harvesting, hybrid varieties about which I knew absolutely nothing. Frontenac, St. Croix, Marquette—all cold hardy grapes developed in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and now planted all over Vermont. Seeing them in the vineyard was exciting and helped to make connections that I’d longed for—I hadn’t worked a harvest before—but now I faced the added question of what these hybrids were like in the bottle. Luckily, I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out.

As it turned out, a neighbor who had been growing a small parcel of vines just up the road from Fable, was preparing to plant five acres of grapes the next spring. Because she plans to farm the land biodynamically, she needed to lay a biodynamic preparation on the soil where the vineyard was to be planted. She would be doing so as we returned from that day’s harvest and unloaded the crates of grapes into the winery, and we were all to gather for dinner at her place to share some wine and toast to her vineyard’s next step.

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Gather we did, and we brought along a half case of ciders and wines to taste and drink. The previous year had been Fable’s first working with grapes, so they were excited and curious to see what this group—which included the farming neighbors, myself, and a few restaurant industry folks from Canada who had come down to tour this fledgling Vermont natural wine community, and to lend a harvest hand—had to say. We tasted and drank the Fable wines, as well as some wines the Canadiens had brought down from Pearl Morissette in Ontario, and we ate the end of the summer’s bounty, with autumn’s apple tart for dessert. It was an excellent way to meet these hybrid grapes, as I met another farmer interested in growing them, and wine directors interested in serving them. I started to understand how undeniably delicious wines made from these grapes could be.

After those early, grape-focused days, the attention turned back to Fable’s first love, and the fruit that is ever present as you drive the back roads of central Vermont: the apple. A rhythm began to set in. The apple crew generally had a few more hands, with a few good friends who had more permanent roots in this place joining in for harvest and pressing. We would gather at the barn and load a few pickup trucks with burlap sacks and ladders. Then we’d set out. The brothers seemed to have a mental map of every craggily old apple tree within fifty miles of the farm, and they’d typically have a general area in mind for the day. Nearly every tree they gather fruit from each season is untreated and unmaintained - just a part of the landscape now, even if many were initially planted as part of an orchard, now long abandoned. Some are just off the dirt roads, easily accessed and quick to make one feel accomplished in the art of the harvest. Others are up steep hills, through waist-high brush that disguised pricker bushes underneath.

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About once every week during those golden days of apple harvesting, we’d have a pressing day. The presses they use are of the bladder variety, which means that the apples are dumped from their burlap sacks into a grinder, then moved to a metal cylinder with a rubber bladder at its center, and small holes on its exterior. Once the cylinder is at capacity, the bladder is slowly filled with water, and sweet, tart, acidic juice —a product of the tannic, sour, and bitter varieties they seek out, because those qualities make the best cider—flows from the holes and into buckets, which are then emptied into larger tanks where fermentation commences. Pressing days are a test of endurance, with heavy lifting and repetitive motion, and the wet outdoor setting combined with unpredictable Vermont fall weather led to some trying afternoons. But at the end of the long days, once the presses were cleaned and returned to the back of the barn, and the pomace (what’s left of the apples once the juice is squeezed out) was trucked off to feed to the pigs up the road, knowing about the transformation the juice is about to undergo helps sooth the aches. That, and a bottle of last year’s cider during cleanup, and maybe a joint. It’s all good medicine.

The necessary shift in focus from grapes, a relatively small proportion of the Fable revenue stream, to apples, over those few weeks, had led to many of the grapes we’d harvested spending a bit longer in the walk-in awaiting their turn than anyone had wanted. We realized some had started to mold, and the boys decided we needed to get them fermenting immediately. That meant a destemming machine, which makes quick work of separating grapes from stems, would come in handy. New to the “grape wine” game, and needing to choose carefully when it comes to equipment investments, Fable hadn’t yet purchased one. So, a call was made to Deirdre and Caleb, winemakers behind the celebrated La Garagista, and neighbors from just up the road. As I’d found was just the way things worked around here, they generously told us to load up our grapes and drive them up the hill to their winery, where we could use the destemmer.

So, we made our way to La Garagista. Deirdre and Caleb were working in their cellar when we arrived, and one would come out to assist each time the destemmer had to be run (it’s not hard to imagine a careless newbie losing a hand in such a machine). The process, which we’d thought would take just a few hours, was slowed down greatly by the amount of sorting that had to be done (because of the mold issues, and some seemingly varied opinions regarding what was acceptable quality by some of the harvest crew). The sun set behind the tree line, and a light but cold rain began to fall. Spirits were in decline, as it seemed as though the night might stretch on forever. That’s when Caleb appeared in front of us, a plateful of sandwiches in his hands—chicken liver pâté and the last of of the greenhouse tomatoes from their backyard. Deirdre poked her head out of the winery, a bottle of their “nouveau” in hand. We paused, turned off the destemmer, ate and drank, and chatted about the trials of farming and winemaking and also about how wonderful this life was. Spirits lifted, we went back to work and soon finished. With tanks of freshly pressed juice precariously loaded in the back of the truck, and the loading dock where the destemmer sat thoroughly scrubbed so as not to cause any more inconvenience than we already had, we set off back down the hill. As we left, other friends of Deirdre and Caleb were just arriving to say hello, and to share in the task of what was about to turn into an even longer night for them; a pet nat’s fermentation had suddenly spiked and it was time to bottle. Oh well, such is this life.

In the days after destemming, the tanks sat fermenting outside the winery, and were punched down each morning and evening. The fermentations—two, both in stainless steel tanks, one a blend of the different red hybrids, and one all frontenac—happened very quickly, and the tanks were then moved into the cave to spend time among the many barrels and demijohns bubbling away.

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Soon, it was time to make my first trip back to the Hudson Valley and New York City since arriving in Vermont a month before. This year’s New York iteration of Raw wine fair was coming up, and the Fable wines were making the journey to Brooklyn to be shown. Naturally, I snuck them in at a table at Hudson’s own Peripheral natural wine fest (in its second year). During my whirlwind trip from Barnard to Hudson to Brooklyn and back—with many cases of wine in the backseat—it was a treat to hear the positive response people had while pouring wines I now knew intimately. I’d come to believe that they deserved a place among the wines I drank over the past few years at Fish & Game, and I was happy to see that many others agreed.

The weather turned rather abruptly toward the middle of November, after our return from the wine fair festivities. One week we were harvesting apples in the still warm late autumn sun; the next found us digging frozen orbs from the freshly fallen snow, tasting to see just how much longer we could continue to gather and press their juice (which had already started a long, slow fermentation where they lay). A few more, short, cold harvest days concluded with a final pressing before all of the juice was put away for its winter’s journey. Then several days of bottling, of both apple and grape wines from harvests past, made room in tanks and barrels for this year’s cider. We hosted a few gatherings in the big old barn, and though they were smaller than that final one of the summer season that I’d walked into a few months prior, the magic was still palpable. Joseph, the meat farmer, would make sufficiently bone-sticking dinners like shepherd’s pie, and Randy, the seventh generation Vermonter from up the road, would lead a few others in some finger-picking music. Sometimes, someone would read their poetry, and there was always plenty of cider.

After those gatherings, I’d make the walk up the hill to the cabin, which was growing increasingly difficult to keep warm, and I’d know my time at Fable was soon coming to an end. Maybe it was the cider talking, but I knew then that this valley had magic in it, and that I would never truly leave it now that it had opened its arms to me.