Healdsburg, California is a wine town. I mean, you cannot throw a rock in Healdsburg without hitting a Zinfandel vine (unless you miss and hit a quaint B&B, brilliant restaurant, rockin’ antiques store or artisan home goods shop with a suspicious number of products crafted from repurposed barrel staves). This is the gateway to Dry Creek and the Russian River Valley and some of California’s best and best-known wines.
It is such a wine town, in fact, that one forgets that Sonoma County was once known for a totally different crop. This area was prime real estate for apples, in particular the epically delicious and notoriously difficult Gravenstein. Plenty of people still grow them – but commercially, on a large scale, it’s dwindling. This is wine country now.
And it’s good wine country. So you get a little bit of nostalgia shock walking into the tasting area at Sonoma Cider. You suddenly remember that wine is an upstart in this country compared to cider, in no small part thanks to the crackpot apple-zealot John Chapman, who scattered cider orchards up and down the American frontier. The place is inviting and casual and clearly more of a workspace than a showplace—in all the best ways. This is a father-sons operation drawing on multiple generations of beverage industry experience, and these guys are, like, really excellent wine or craft beer makers, part chemists, part agriculturalists and part jazz musicians. Everyone is hands-on involved, all the way down to the house-crafted tap handles which Leif Ludwig (son/bro in law) creates from slabs of local hardwood – milled, lathed and painted by hand.
The apples are organic, thoughtfully sourced, and while you can certainly put together a very cidery cider from whatever hodgepodge of apples you happen to have on hand (if you couldn’t, Johnny Appleseed would’ve had to hang up that tin pot he allegedly wore as a hat), but anyone who loves apples (and to call them a fetish of mine would be putting it mildly) knows they have as much varietal character as anything on this planet. A pinot noir grape has about 30,000 genes, which already trumps the human genome at around 25,000. Apples clock in at around 60,000. Do the proverbial math. These guys get that. And these ciders are remarkable celebrations of varietal character; their dry Fuji cider is fabulous and if you were blind-tasting it, you’d taste Fuji, not “cider.”
But one of the cool things about cider is that it’s much more playful than wine or beer. It has the refined, celebratory effervescence of sparkling wine without the attitude (and I say that as someone whose desert island drink would absolutely be Champagne). Cider can be tinkered with, adulterated, in ways that are a little dangerous in wine (Sean Thackrey, I exclude you from that statement. You do whatever you want to: I will drink it). And some of the results are surprising. One of my favorites was “The Anvil,” which is aged in old bourbon barrels. The result is rich, with a strong but not overpowering burnt sugar note – it tastes a little like the way your kitchen smells when an apple pie bubbles over and sugar caramelizes and makes a big old mess of your oven. Like, in a really good way. The limited-run “Washboard” release is infused with vanilla and sarsaparilla bark (those are both common flavors in root beer, which this will evoke on the approach, but it’s definitely not root beer, and it’s damned good). Ciders infused with pear (creamy, lush), fennel (herbaceous and brisk), wormwood (dangerous, seductive and a little dirty) and even habanero pepper and lime (crushing Scotch bonnets is a hazardous affair and I am glad I wasn’t there to inhale or accidentally rub my eyes on that day, but the result is fun).
There’s currently a reserve “Zider” that brings Healdsburg’s twin heritages together by aging a very dry cider in Zinfandel barrels, imparting a rosy color and a certain winey je ne sais what. I love this not only because it tastes good – though it does! But because there are a lot of interesting accords in the flavor profiles of wine grapes and apples, and you get a heightened sense of that complexity in this drink. And even a little something more, and this gets a little woo-woo, but anyone who doesn’t get that there is inherent woo to making alcoholic beverages should arguably let the rest of us handle it and order a Coke…. Anyway, this stuff expresses what I can only call the terroir of tenacity. As delicate as their end products can be, zin vines and apple trees are both badass-tough. They are survivors, stalwarts – neglect them and they just push back harder. Does determination and drive have a flavor profile? It might be this stuff.
Sonoma Cider is widely available in markets and bars, for those who don’t have the privilege of wandering into their shop on a Saturday afternoon. Of the handful of cideries I know of in the county (and the industry is experiencing such a revival that two more probably opened while I was writing this), none are turning out a bad product in my opinion. Ace is nice, and I’m a longtime, um, devotee? Of Devoto’s cider, as well. I have to say, though – there is something fresh, fun and slightly feral about these guys that I am a little in love with. Which is what you should always get when you’re working with apples – tame apples are sad. Get a Red Delicious from Safeway and then a Winter Pearmain from your farmer’s market if you don’t understand what I mean by that. Apples are wayward and wild by nature, and these guys get it. Their products are refined and thoughtful without being ponderous, and elegant and precise without a trace of haughtiness (grapes are way better at haughty than apples). You can tell that these people are doing something they love, meaning, you can taste it. It kind of makes you wonder why you’d ever eat or drink something where you didn’t taste that.