Not Just Wine Country Anymore
Small-Batch Cideries are Keeping Heirloom Apple Orchards Thriving as Vineyards Continue to Increase
The countryside near the town of Sebastopol has, for well over a century, been known as “apple country”. Many of the original apple orchards were planted in the 1800s during the Russian fur traders’ journey down the coast, long before commercial vineyards were even a thought. Our beloved heirloom apple, Gravenstein, is a treasured gift of that period and just so happens to be one of the preferred apples of cidermakers for creating small-batch craft ciders. Today, many of those old orchards have been replaced by grape vines, but the mighty apple is still alive and kicking, making Sonoma County a top destination for cider tasting and expanding our definition of “wine country” as we know it.
Each of the producers highlighted make varying styles of cider but at the core of each cider house is an undeniable commitment to natural, holistic farming. Using the least invasive methods possible for tilling, irrigation, fertilizing, and pruning has resulted in a deepened connection to the land and strengthened the biodiversity across each orchard.
Located north of Sebastopol on Occidental Road, Ethic Cider produces single-varietal and blended ciders using fruit from their USDA certified organic Apple Bottom farm and local organic growers. Owner Ned Lawton believes the key to their pure, flavor-forward ciders is a commitment to and practice of regenerative agriculture. The six-acre, tiered orchard is dry-farmed in sandy loam soils which are ideal conditions for apple growing. The orchard’s proximity to the ocean clocks in at under a 12-minute drive, allowing for an extended ripening season with cool, foggy mornings giving way to long, warm afternoons. The airborne salinity also plays a minor role in the fruit’s coastal nuance, offering layered complexity, lively acidity, and structure.
Each apple variety is harvested, pressed, and fermented separately, often on multiple yeasts in either stainless steel tank or neutral oak barrels, to reveal its unique expression. This gives Cidermaker Dwight Harrington a large palette from which to create award-winning, single-apple bottlings and blends. The components are either individually bottled or used to create a blended cider, with one variety as the focal point, to achieve balance and depth. Their tireless approach of respecting the fruit and orchards results in the ultimate expression of the season’s best each year.
The Golden Rule Cider was a 2018 Good Food Winner and is comprised of 85% Golden Delicious with 15% each of Jonathan, Rhode Island Greening, and Gravenstein. Floral and robust, this truly dry sparkling cider show notes of melon, vanilla, and honeysuckle balanced with a hint of nutmeg and citrus acidity.
[8.4% ABV, $12/500ml]
Growing: Nehou, Golden Russets, Newtown Pippin, Golden Delicious, Dabinette, Jonathan and many other rare cider varietals.
Visting: No public tasting room, but club members can book tastings by appointment at the farm. Plans are underway to open an on-site tasting room in Summer 2023. Open for key Farm Trails event throughout the year.
More information at ethicciders.com/new-events. @ethicciders
Pairing: The Evergreen, with its light undertones of fir tips and pronounced tannin makes this full-size bottle (750ml) ideal for sharing over special meals like Thanksgiving turkey with walnut stuffing and braised baby carrots, or roasted duck.
Wearing dual hats during harvest, heralded winegrower Eric Sussman is not only the producer of cult-status Radio-Coteau and County Line Vineyard wines but also the expert cidermaker behind Eye Cyder, a small-batch artisanal cidery located in the heart of apple country. Created as a passion project to preserve local heritage fruits while honoring the agricultural biodiversity of western Sonoma County, his cider apples come from their Biodynamic farm and others from their organically farmed orchard on Barlow Lane. Each cider is made with an intentional focus on regenerative farming, native yeast fermentation, and purity (unfined, unfiltered, no added sulfites). Everything happens within a hyper-local radius–from foraging the fruit and botanicals to where they produce and sell the ciders in and around Sebastopol.
What sets Eye Cyder apart from other cideries is their solera barrel-aged method whereby a portion of the previous year’s cider is added to the current blend for enhanced texture and apple flavor. Their “OG,” or Original Gravenstein cider bursts with bold Grav aromas and flavors in every sip as result of the this extra step. For their seasonal ciders, fresh apple juice is co-fermented with whole fruits for maximum infusion like “Bramble Eye” made with Gravenstein apples and wild blackberries and “Skins & Stones” made with Gravenstein apples and Satsuma plums.
And the name? The “Eye” is a playful nod to their first farm feline, a one-eyed cat inherited upon purchasing the estate, and the old English spelling of “Cyder” which adds a nice visual complement to the entire name.
Growing: Gravenstein, Fuji, Braeburn, blackberries
Visiting: No tasting room but orders from Eye Cyder’s online shop can be picked up by-appointment at the cidery. Taste ciders at Handline, Fern Bar, and Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol. Retailed at Sebastopol Community Market, Andy’s Produce, Miracle Plum, Bohemian Market, Little Saint, and Pomme Cider Shop in Sonoma.
eyecyder.com | (707) 823-2578 @eyecyder.
Pairing: Aged English cheddars, bleu cheese, cured meats, country-style pâtés, seafood tacos, Thai dishes, fruit-based pies and galettes. The Skins & Stones pairs beautifully with a crispy duck breast using that cider in the reduction sauce for bonus plum flavor.
Tilted Shed Ciderworks
Husband-and-wife owners of Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli, landed in the cider business via a circular route which took them from Alameda to New York to New Mexico then back to Northern California. The cider duo is now firmly rooted, tending their 5.4-acre orchard in Sebastopol which is home to over 120 varieties of heirloom apples and fruits. Using low-input, no-till organic practices, their seedling nursery, fondly called their “pomological research station”, cultivates trees from apple seeds as way to protect vintage fruits which are quickly disappearing off the landscape. This mission to preserve threatened apple varieties and revive lost orchards is accomplished through a delicious crusade of top-notch cider and perry making. Farm fresh apples are pressed on-site at their Windsor-based production facility and tasting room in the Beverage District on Bell Road. Sourcing a wide variety from neighboring apples growers no further than a 15-mile radius, they often experiment with different fruit combinations that when coupled with wild yeast fermentation yield beautifully crafted co-ferment ciders. Aged a minimum of one year in neutral oak barrels, their cider making process is slow and steady yet very much worth the wait. Their Pommeau is aged a minimum of two years and is aromatic, unctuous, and tastes like caramel apple in a glass. Founded in 2012, and the second oldest cidery in Sonoma County, Scott and Ellen take cider making seriously, but their esoteric and vividly colored labels show off their playful side. There’s a fun story behind each one so ask away while you enjoy a flight of five ciders, freshly poured from-tap. [$15 per person]
Their ‘2021 We Are All Stardust’ uses local, organically grown Sonoma County apples, feral blackberries from the farm, foraged elderberries from near the Russian River, and a winery neighbor’s Carignan grapes fermented with native yeasts. This stellar cider offers notes of black currant and baking spice, a plush tannic structure, and a coral-hued sparkle.
[ABV 9.0%, Sold 2 cans per pack, 375ml each, $12]
Growing: Kingston Black, Nehou, Golden Russet, Roxbury Russet, Porter’s Perfection, Yarlington Mill, Golden Delicious, Gravenstein, Hewes Virginia crabapple, Amere de Berthecourt, Wickson, Newtown Pippin, Rhode Island Greening, Bramtot, Michelin, Transcendent crabapple.
Visiting: 7761 Bell Rd, Windsor, open Friday 2-7pm, Happy Hour specials 3-6pm. Saturdays 12-5 pm.
Outdoor and indoor seating and to-go. @tiltedshed
Growing up in a well-known family of winemakers in Napa Valley has given Far Cider Cidermaker Kylor Williams a unique approach to creating fresh, bone-dry ciders. Made very much like fine wine, Kylor uses neutral oak barrels for both fermenting and aging his small-batch ciders. Only a handful of barrels are made every year and each bottling is done by hand at the family winery facility. He aspires to a Basque-style cider as the prize, noted for its crispness, farmhouse funk, and tangy finish. This Old-World style perfectly reflects his personal taste preference for dry ciders which also happens to be very food friendly. Far Cider is all-natural, made using only native yeast and free of sweeteners, giving even the experienced cider drinker something new to explore. The small but mighty collection is comprised of two ciders – “California Dry” and a three-year, barrel-aged “Vintage Release” cider released every few years. Both are pure expressions of organic apples and are buzz-worthy within the cider community. What started in 2011 as gleaning from trees on the family estate has now grown to sourcing fresh presses out of Sonoma, Napa, and even as far as the Sierra Foothills in search of obscure cider varieties like Ashmead’s Kernel, Black Twig, and Mutzu along with the more common Braeburn, Jonathan, and Arkansas Black.
The name? The Far Side cartoons resonated with Kylor growing up, and it’s also a wink to some inside familial humor based on the R.W. Emerson expression “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. If you want the whole story, well, you’ll just have to coax it out of him over a glass of cider.
Visiting: Keeping it in the family, Far Cider is poured upon request as part of the wine tasting by appointment at Tres Sabores Winery. Also available at Brown’s Valley Market,
La Taberna, ZuZu’s, Foodshed Pizza & Pasta in Napa. On-tap and in bottles at Pomme Cider Shop in Sonoma.
farcider.com | email@example.com | @farcider
Pairing: This drinks like a fine white wine so think tapas, aged cheeses, fish dishes, olives. A home run with holiday staples like turkey, herbed dressing and side dishes, cranberry relish, and of course, fruit-based desserts. Kylor recommends a craft cider over champagne for the “sipping while cooking” portion of a holiday meal and as a refreshing palate cleanser after dinner.
Pomme Cider Shop and Taproom
Whether you are new to ciders or an experienced imbiber, tasting and learning about craft ciders just got a whole lot more fun at Pomme. Proprietors Jessica Olson-Ealy and Rick Tranchina opened Sonoma County’s only cider tap room and bottle shop just steps off the historic Sonoma Plaza in May of this year, and immediately created a community following. And now many artisanal cidermakers from across the country are reaching out to introduce their ciders to the team with hopes to secure a slot on the coveted cider wall. The dizzying array of whimsical, non-traditional bottle labels is like viewing modern art at a gallery. But the artistic craft doesn’t stop there. Each bottle is methodically taste-tested by Rick and Jessica (fondly called “homework”) to ensure it meets their criteria of being a memorable cider – one that’s interesting on the palate, made well with high-quality juice, and is true to its “style”. From crisp and bone-dry, to funky Basque and farmhouse ciders, to elegant, finely carbonated fresh styles more akin to a fine white wine, there’s a wide range in cidermaking… and Pomme has them all. Rick and Jessica pride themselves on featuring many local producers like Bardos, Olde World Winery, Gowan, Dutton Cider to support these small producers that large distributors can’t pick up. Shop over 125 producers from the West Coast and across the globe, as well as sample 15 different offerings on-tap. You’ll also find Pét-Nats, sparkling wines, and a few micro-brews to round out their extensive list. They’ve also thoughtfully curated a few small bites for noshing with your cider, making Pomme a favorite for happy hour-goers and serious cider enthusiasts. For those who would like to sample non-alcoholic ciders, or gluten-free options, Pomme has you covered with a nice variety to choose from.
Visiting: Open Sun-Tues & Thurs 12pm-6pm; Friday 12pm-8pm and Saturday 11am-8pm; Closed Weds | 531 Broadway, Downtown Sonoma | (707) 343-7155 | @pommecidershop
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Most ciders are best enjoyed at cellar temperature which ranges between 50-55°F. Too cold and the beautiful aromatics of a cider are lost. Best to keep the bottle or can chilled then bring it out 15-20 minutes prior to pouring for optimum sensory enjoyment. For very dry, tannic ciders, closer to room temperature is even better.
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Preferred glassware by most cidermakers is a stemmed white wine glass with a tapered, or tulip-shape design. The rounded base which narrows toward the top allows the cider to concentrate and release its aromatics right at the glass opening so the nose and palate can enjoy an elevated drinking experience.