Illustration by Enya Todd
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?”
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.”
“There are wild grapes that grow on the side of the road in here,” Cavalli says, pointing to a co-ferment 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.”
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.