In Northern California, A Growing Community of Co-mingled Cofermenters Is Putting the Land First.
The apples for North American Press’ cofermented grape cider come from an 80-year old organic dry-farmed Gravenstein orchard in the middle of a butterfly sanctuary in western Sonoma County. Owner Matt Niess is one of many winemakers fermenting whatever fruit the land offers and blurring the line between craft cider and wine. Ellen Cavalli and Scott Heath of Tilted Shed might be the de facto leaders of this troop traipsing into the woods in search of wild grapes, forgotten vineyards and abandoned orchards.
Jason Charles of Vinca Minor Wine in Berkeley got into apples after smoke taint severely impacted his red grape harvest in 2020 (the apples didn’t show effects from the smoke). Cassidy Miller, his assistant winemaker, was inspired by the experience to start her own label, Buddy/Buddy Wine, focusing on apple, pear and grape coferments. And Rosalind Reynolds, assistant winemaker at Pax Mahle Wines, located in The Barlow—a mixed-use space in Sebastopol that once housed an apple-processing plant—became interested in co-ferments after tasting Tilted Shed’s, ultimately leading her to experiment with the other fruit in the winemaking process with her label, Emme Wines.
All of them talk of the concentrated flavors and phenolics and increased tannins from the skins of dry-farmed apples in a way that is immediately familiar to anyone who has ever heard a similar argument applied to grapes. Take one bite from a Gravenstein freshly pulled from a limb in the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens where Niess gets his apples, and you’ll get the idea. Then sip Wildcard, his coferment. It’s a flavor fueled by the flap of butterfly wings and tangles of wild grapes growing in gullies.
Niess brought his structural engineering degree and restaurant industry experience to Radio-Coteau, a Demeter-certified Biodynamic vineyard and winery (that also produces Eye Cyder seasonal ciders) in Sonoma County where he worked for 10 years before striking out on his own to focus on native and hybrid grapes. “Everyone’s talking about regenerative agriculture,” he says. “But why are we not talking about this whole world of grapes that have this really profound disease resistance because they evolved in much more humid areas, so they’ve evolved to fight the mildew?”
In part, the drive to make cider or apple wine or grape cider or whatever the TTB (the organization that regulates labels in the U.S.) decides it should be called the day the label is submitted, is as old as fermentation itself. “To get your foot in the door now in the wine industry is so expensive,” Says Matt Neiss, “and grapes are so expensive and land is so expensive in California that younger winemakers like myself are just looking around and doing that same thing that traditionally is where fruit wines came from—using what’s available and what you have.”
“There are wild grapes that grow on the side of the road in here,” Ellen Cavalli says, pointing to a coferment dubbed Feral, that, like most of these mashups, is spontaneously fermented with wild yeast. “You can taste the place, because you’re not going to be able to find this anywhere else.”
Both Niess and Scott and Ellen from Tilted Shed forage their wild grapes “ethically,” recognizing that what they are harvesting is a wild food source, they take no more than 30% from a vine and leave the rest to local wildlife. “I’d drive around with pole pruners in the back of my truck,” says Niess. “If I saw wild grapes on the side of the road, I would just pull over.”
Fermenting fruit always had been a way to preserve a seasonal abundance, which Ellen and Scott recognized right away. “This Pink Pearl” she says, holding up a large light-colored apple, “right now will last for a week, right? Couple weeks off the tree, if it’s not stored well. But you ferment it and you can drink it in six months in a year.” Besides the heritage Gravenstein, they are cultivating on their property, by her estimate, more than a hundred varieties of apples gleaned from heritage sites. Lately, Ellen’s become particularly interested in red-fleshed apples, with a high anthocyanin content, from which Tilted Shed is making a “rosé” from only apples.
Tilted Shed’s production is in a mixed use industrial park just north of Sebastopol full of brewers, distillers and, of course, winemakers. The grapes for their first apple-grape coferment came from William Daenen at Two Shepards right next door, who was processing Carignan one afternoon and invited Scott to grab a bucket and take some. Now they trade fresh pressed apples juice for grapes and William makes his own coferment at his Two Shepards. Since then Tilted Shed has branched out beyond basics with pet nat coferments, experimenting with various varietal combinations and foraged wild or feral grapes as well.
The Butterfly Effect
In the springtime at Hallberg, when the apple trees flower, there are butterflies all over, pollinating the trees. “You really get a sense of this pollinator habitat and how the orchard can coexist when things are farmed responsibly with a really biodiverse property like this,” Niess says.
The orchard is a holdover from the heyday of Sebastopol’s iconic Gravenstein, when 13,000 acres were planted in Sonoma County. Today, many have made way for grapevines and there are only about 700 acres left. “To see the number of old orchards bulldozed and then converted to vineyards has been painful for us to watch,” says Cavalli. “All the apples we use are dry farmed. They don’t require much at all. They don’t get smoke taint. They don’t ask for any more water. They’re pretty disease resistant and hearty.”
When Tilted Shed released its first commercial cider in 2012, they may have been the only the craft cidermaker at the Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sebastopol that year. “We had to elbow our way into the wine tent,” Cavalli remembers. And this past fall at the 49th Gravenstein Apple Fair, there were 15 craft cider makers. And much how winemakers in the area have stopped old vine grapes from being grafted over to Pinot or Cab buy creating cult-y wines with them, these producers and the winemaker working with apples now are preserving the heritage orchards by creating a demand for ciders they produce.
The cider-wine continuum in Western Sonoma has included the exchange of grapes and apples, of course, but also barrels, storage areas and,. most important, inspiration and knowledge. “There’s a lot of camaraderie right now with these coferments,” Cavalli says, “because we all really appreciate each other’s work and our different expressions and different ideas.”
“I wanted to make something that wine people could appreciate because it has wine elements,” says Rosalind Reynolds. While grapes and wine are her primary focus at Emme and Pax, she hopes to shift a little of people’s taste and attention and show that cider can be as refined and elegant as wine. “It’s a shame to rip out old, beautiful carbon sequestering, dry-farmed orchards to plant Pinot vineyards that need a shit ton of water,” she says, sounding very much like Ellen Cavalli.
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: May 9, 2023