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Although his days are spent with high-tech gadgets all meant to improve a wine’s quality and profitability, Will Drayton’s off time is in pursuit of something less futuristic — hand-crafting small lots of locally picked apples into “hard” cider.

“I have always loved cider,” Drayton said. “When I first moved to America in 2005 there were a bunch of apple trees where we were staying and all the fruit was just falling to the ground, so I started making cider and I found it to be pretty intriguing.”

Drayton, who grew up south of London, England, has always had a fond appreciation for fermented beverages, and that interest led him into the world of winemaking.

After college in his native country, Drayton moved to California, where he obtained a master’s degree in agriculture from UC Davis in 2009. Since then, he’s worked with Treasury Wine Estates (the parent company of Napa Valley wineries such as Beringer, Beaulieu Vineyard, Sterling Vineyards and Stags’ Leap), eventually becoming their director of technical viticulture and research winemaking.

Since his first experiments, Drayton has made apple cider every year, refining and expanding his collection of like-minded cider enthusiasts so that by 2014 he and his cohort had grown to five.

“We met during a cider tasting, and I roped Jason (Price, assistant winemaker at Robert Craig Winery) into it at first,” Drayton said. “My wife [Ellen] was happy I had someone else to help press the apples, and by the end of that year we had a cider tasting. Three other locals showed up and were, like, ‘Dude, we love this and we want to help out.’ So we thought, well, why not just make a company out of it?”

And they did, forming Sawhorse Cider with five young partners, each with experience in fermentation science and each with a keen interest in exploring more than just grapes. The five partners include Erik Goodmanson (assistant winemaker at Bouchaine Vineyards ), Jeff Sharp (brewer of beer) and Jay Turnipseed (winemaker at the Rutherford Wine Co.).

Cider popularity growing

The popularity of hard ciders continues to grow. According to Forbes, often citing Neilson data, interest in regional craft-cider producers has gained the attention of younger drinkers who are looking for a lower-alcohol alternative to wine and spirits.

Most ciders fall between 5 percent and 8 percent alcohol, whereas wine is often anywhere from 9 percent to 15 percent. Many consumers appear to appreciate the option of having something that’s just different and novel when they are either drinking at a restaurant “on premise” or buy bottles or kegs for consumption “off premise.”

Sawhorse is available only on premise at local restaurants and bars, but the group has plans to sell bottles of their cider at some point in the future.

“After tasting Sawhorse Cider with our guests and staff, everyone loved it so it was just easy to bring in and add to the menu,” said Mike Lee is the beverage director and manager at Napa’s La Taberna. “Cider is really coming into its own. We have 11 different ciders on our menu because they work so well with our food, which is northern Spain inspired. We serve Sawhorse cider on tap. Having ciders made from local apples by local people makes it even that much more personal.”

Finding apples in a sea of grapes

As the demand grows, the Sawhorse crew continues to seek out sources for locally grown apples.

“We’ve planted some of our own trees, but most of our apples come from small growers that might only have one or a few trees,” Drayton said. “That means that we spend a lot of time traveling around and picking mostly in Napa and Sonoma.”

The goal, according to Price, is to keep local apple sources that represent a range of flavors and profiles to help build complexity and texture, which can often be found in older orchards such as Ray Krauss’ just off Spring Mountain Road between Napa and Sonoma counties.

“My wife (Barbara Shumsky) and I planted our orchard back in 1974, and we are pleased that the trees are now being used to make this cider,” Krauss said as he held up a small wineglass filled with a pale-golden liquid that shimmered with tiny bubbles.

As we talked, we strolled through a grove of fruit trees at the crest of a mountain. Around us, the trees, still leafless in their winter hibernation, appeared vastly different from one another: some tall with silvery bark and wiry branches, while others were squat and thick-barked, peppered with tiny holes made from the local woodpecker population. To the west, Sonoma County stretched toward the Pacific and wispy fog gathered for its nightly migration to blanket the region.

“We planted 35 different kinds of apples, and for a while we were picking them and my wife sold them at the local farmers markets. But for the last few years, until these guys came up and started picking them again, they were pretty much just feeding the birds and raccoons.”

Cider making is similar to making white wine

At present, the Sawhorse Cider team is making a blend of their various lots. As with many winemakers, the cider is made in small batches from separate orchards. Made in the manner of white wine, the apples are brought into the cidery (at this point actually the Robert Craig Winery), where they are washed and allowed to rest until being ground (scratted) and then put through a press and fermented.

“It’s a lot like winemaking,” Turnipseed said. “We’re all pretty good at fermenting and blending stuff, and so we’re always trying to make something that’s really a harmonious whole, which is what I think we’ve done. Our cider is different than most in that it’s really just pure fruit expression — it doesn’t have a ton of oak, if any; the flavor profile is clean and fresh.”

Experimenting and refining

“Like the early days of winemaking in California, we are experimenting and refining our approach as we go along, but, to me, our recent vintages are really nailing it — I’d hate to change things too much, because I am really happy with what we have at this point,” Price said.

The cider

We tasted the 2016 and 2017 vintages of Sawhorse cider, and I was struck by how delicate and aromatic each offering presented itself. Completely dry, both vintages only flirted with sweetness and carbonation and were unlike many of the hard ciders I’ve had in the past, which can be cloying with hard carbonation. These were more like a frizzante-styled wine made with a compelling mix that vaguely resembled a low-alcohol blend of Viognier and Riesling wine. The flavors of both were complex, and the aromatic tended toward green apple and pear mixed with a stony earthiness, the bright acid refreshing. Beyond the initial general impressions, these ciders opened to reveal depths that bordered on astounding.

Beeswax, sage, petrol, chalk, peach, lime, leather and rose petal are often terms associated with some of the world’s finest wines, but here in these ciders they took on new nuances, ones enhanced by the accompaniment of malic acid, the predominant acid in apples (also found in grapes, although at a lower concentration). The low alcohol of the ciders, their slightly spritziness coupled with a dizzying array of flavors and aromas, was brought into focus with crisp acid and made me understand why cider might find favor with sommeliers who seem always on the lookout for something to pair with light summer fare or as a pre-dinner libation that cleans and refreshes the palate without clouding the mind before a dinner dedicated to more robust wines or cocktails.

The future of winemaking may include apples and other fruit

Fermenting grains (spirits and beer), fruit (wines and cider), vegetables or other sources of sugar (like honey in mead) has seemingly always been a part of the human experience. Leave out a container of any of these long enough, with enough water, and voila, with some luck, you have yourself a concoction that has the potential to enthrall and delight.

For the last few decades, winemakers have poked and prodded grapes both in the vineyard and in the winery. The result has been that the general quality of wine has improved to the point where having a flawed or technically “bad” wine is much rarer than it has ever been. Now a winery can be found in every state in America, and wine is made in nearly every country.

But in recent years there seems to have been a yearning to return to more natural expressions of place through other sources beyond grapes.

“We all have full-time jobs, so this is a little bit of like escapism from our normal lives,” Drayton said. “We’re all in the wine industry and we’re all totally involved with what’s going on in Napa and we are seeing a lot more experimentation. For us, I am really happy with what we’re producing — this is some of the finest cider I’ve ever tasted, and even so I think we can continue to improve over time.”

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