Copia’s Ciderfest, held on Sept. 1, was a glorious anticipation of autumn, where 16 cider producers set up tables at which attendees sampled a fermented product of a different fruit than what you normally find in the Napa Valley: apples.
One of them was Will Drayton, the proprietor of Sawhorse Cider. He’s a winemaker full time, but has been making cider on his own since he moved to California from London 16 years ago.
He is based in Sebastopol but picks his apples from all over Napa and Sonoma counties, from Howell Mountain to Spring Mountain. He tries to find as many interesting varieties of apples as he can to give his cider its distinctive characteristics. He ferments each variety separately and tastes each lot to see how he wants to blend them.
“We’re making it just like wine,” he said. “We’re trying to, as much as possible, learn about the different varieties, what each apple or pear variety brings to the blend. We try to be as close to a direct transport of the tree flavor as possible.”
On his table, next to a jar of wild carrots he picked in an orchard that morning, was a sign that listed some of the varieties he uses: Gravensteins, Rhode Island Greenings, Newtown Pippins, Jonathans, Granny Smith, Crab Apple — and then a Bartlett pear.
Napa Cider Company’s president is Keith Allan, a retired pharmaceutical executive who worked for Dey Labs in South Napa.
He features two ciders: a rosé blended with pinot noir to give it a nice pink color, and a hard cider that is blended with muscato for body. He sources his apples fresh from Washington state, and the wine comes from Napa and Sonoma.
Blending cider with other flavors is not unusual, but he was the only person there doing it with wine grapes. “I was tasting various pear, pineapple, ginger and hibiscus ciders, and I enjoy all of them actually, even the guava,” he said. “But living here and wanting to have something that mirrors Napa and Napa winemaking—why don’t I experiment with different wines and see what would pair well with apples?”
Allan is the man with the vision for the company, and he has a team of cider makers that oversee production. You can find his ciders in the Grill at Silverado Country Club, at the Ranch Markets in Napa and Yountville, Billco’s on tap, Calmart in Calistoga, and there are a couple hotels in Napa that are interested in them as well.
He was just picked up by a distributor, but still recognizes the importance of salesmanship. He gets his placements by going in person to prospective markets or restaurants and presenting his cider. He said, “They want something that is from Napa, so a lot of the time the response is, ‘I’ll take it!’”
His team all had shirts with a direct marketing message: “Hard Cider for the Wine Enthusiast.” He could not be more clear to whom he is marketing.
Sarah Hemly, president of Hemly Cider, is married to Matt Hemly, a sixth-generation apple and pear farmer in the Sacramento River Delta. After having children, she decided she wanted to make her own cider and traveled to France, England and Tasmania to explore different cider producers.
What she found was that “in California we have access to amazing fruit, but it’s dessert fruit, so like in wine terms, it would be taking concord grapes and making them into a complex wine.”
“There is specific fruit that’s grown for cider. If you take an English-style cider, where they are using cider apples and Perry pears back to the U.S. and use Bartlett pears, it falls flat on your palate. So the Australians have found a way of taking dessert fruit and making that into a balanced cider. So I flew down to Tasmania and talked to whiskey and cider makers down there and came back here and developed this recipe for using pears.”
Dessert fruit, as distinguished from cider fruit, are the sweet apples in modern American grocery stores: Fujis, Honeycrisps, Galas, Red Delicious and the like. Cider apples, according to her, are crab apples. And the notion of “Pear Cider” doesn’t actually exist in England. There, what we call Pear Cider, they simply call “Perry.” Cider refers only to apples.
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In the U.S., Hemly doesn’t have access to the cider apples as they do in England, so she has to use dessert fruit. She would plant her own, but it takes about four years to get an apple crop, and eight years to get a pear crop. In England, they say, you plant pears for your “heirs,” because it takes so long for them to produce. The pear orchards in the Delta where she gets her pears were planted in the 1860s and her apple trees were planted in the 1980s.
“Pears are a lot harder than apples,” Hemly said. “When you press them they just fly out the side. There is something about the cell structure that doesn’t give up the juice. Growing them is harder, picking them is harder, when the pH comes in at 4.2, and alcohol is 7 percent maximum, you’re basically at varsity level winemaking and you haven’t even gotten started.”
The key to pear cider is pressing it at the right time, the growers said. It then goes through primary fermentation and malolactic fermentation. She ages everything in oak to add tannin, then back sweetens the cider with fresh pressed juice.
Sound familiar? Once again, a cider maker is using the same techniques that winemakers use to produce fine wine.
Hemly gave me a taste of her jalapeno pear cider. She said that when she decided to mix a Mexican hot pepper in with her cider, the Tasmanians got really angry with her. And then, when they tried it they got even more angry, because they liked it.
Cider was huge in the U.S. leading up to Prohibition. But, like wine, most of the cider apple trees were pulled out. Hemly said that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had their own cider orchards. Johnny Appleseed, that mythical American vagabond, was planting seeds for cider apples, not apple pie.
She discussed the similarities between cider and wine, but there is a huge difference between them when it comes to the perception by the public: in the U.S., cider is consumed like beer.
“The tricky part is, that we are made like wine, but marketed like beer,” Hemly said. “Everybody sees our ABVs (alcohol by volume) in line, and our packaging is in line and the price point is in line, but then it comes from fruit? It’s harvest based? It’s not just a bunch of ingredients that are thrown together?”
She concluded that this is why it is so important for cider producers to have events like Ciderfest at Copia, where the public can get educated about what cider is, and is not.
Eve’s Cidery, from the Finger Lakes AVA in upstate New York, had packaging and flavor profile may be the most wine-like. The cider comes in 750 ml Chardonnay and Hock bottles, corked with real cork or a Champagne cage. They also presented an ice cider, made just like ice wine.
Eve’s Cidery’s Darling Creek Cider was so dry it bordered on astringent. I felt like someone who grew up drinking Coca-Cola, tasting a tannic, astringent young Bordeaux for the first time. But it’s important not to judge something like that in such a casual, crowded environment. A stand-up tasting is the worst way to really appreciate the subtleties of a fine wine, and I would never want to pass judgment a wine, or cider, or any fine beverage in a place where I couldn’t really focus on what I was tasting. The finest wines in the world, heavily control where and how their wines are presented.
Eve’s Cidery’s website offers an extensive discussion of the varieties of apples they use, the composition of their orchard soils and how their ciders are the purest expression of the soils and apples they could possibly produce. The website says everything except the word “terroir.”
Further, there is the cider dinner where a chef will prepare a tasting menu specifically meant to be paired with their ciders, or you can schedule your own private cider tasting.
While Sawhorse, Napa Cider Company and Hemly’s talk about the similarities extant between wine and cider, Eve’s Cidery is actually taking that similarity to its logical conclusion and treating the production—and marketing—of their cider like fine wine.