The Finger Lakes Is to Cider What Napa Is to Wine

Photos by Jason Wilson

This excerpt is adapted from Jason Wilson’s “Cider Revival: Dispatches From the Orchard,” out now.

Just picture an apple in your mind. If you’re like most people, it’s a simple thing to conjure, something you’ve done since childhood — A, after all, is for Apple. What you’re likely imagining is red and shiny and perfectly round. It’s the kind of apple you’d find in the grocery store. If we were to put a name to this apple, it might be Red Delicious or McIntosh or Gala or Fuji or Cortland or Jonagold or everyone’s new favorite, Honeycrisp. Or perhaps Granny Smith or Golden Delicious if you think in green or yellow rather than red. In any case, you’re likely thinking of an apple you can hold in your hand and bite into. These are called dessert apples or culinary apples. They’re the sort of familiar fruit that much of the cider in the United States is made from.

Cider from dessert apples veers toward sweet and low in alcohol, with straightforward apple-y aromas, not too much acidity, and almost no tannins or structure. Ciders like this can be refreshing and quaffable, if they aren’t too cloying, which unfortunately many of them are. But they don’t offer much in the way of complexity. A cider made from dessert apples is what cider people call modern. Modern, in fact, is the official term used by the United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM), a trade group of more than a thousand members, which invested a lot of time and effort in 2017 to create a Style Guide that delineates various categories.

The opposite of modern cider is the other major category — cider made from cider apples. Cider apples are far from the idealized shiny red orbs of childhood. They’re often gnarled, rough, russeted, pocked with brown and black spots, oddly shaped, and sometimes the size of little deformed golf balls. These apples might be classified as bittersweets, bittersharps, heirlooms, crab apples, or even wild apples. According to the USACM’s Cider Style Guide, ciders made with cider apples are now officially called heritage, to differentiate them from modern cider. Heritage cider, the USACM states in its definition, has “increased complexity” and “complex aromatics.” The complexity of heritage cider is created in the orchard.

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Many of the bittersweets and bittersharps that now grow in North America were first cultivated in England or France, where they have been used for centuries in cider. In Britain, the first references to cider date back to 55 B.C.E., when the invading Romans observed the Celts fermenting a drink from local apples. More apple varieties were introduced from across the English Channel during the Norman Conquest of 1066. In Normandy, by the 16th century, there were more than 60 named apples officially permitted for cider making. Early settlers brought apples to America, and within a few years after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth in 1620, the first apple trees were planted in Massachusetts. By the 1670s, some New England villages were producing more than 500 hogsheads (or 32,000 gallons) per year. By the end of the 18th century, the average Massachusetts resident consumed, annually, about 35 gallons of cider. This was the era of the often-told tale of John Adams’s prodigious cider consumption — it’s said that Adams drank a tankard every day at breakfast.

Beyond European bittersharps and bittersweets, American heirloom apples are also sought after for heritage cider, bringing complex aromas, minerality, and acidity. Heirlooms such as Northern Spy, Rhode Island Greening, Newtown Pippin, or Golden Russet are historic varieties that were cultivated in early America. The oldest is believed to be the Roxbury Russet, which was first propagated in the 1630s by settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many heirlooms were prized for both drinking and eating in centuries past, but at some point they fell out of favor and popular taste, for several reasons. First, there was the emergence of quality beer, brought to America by German immigrants in the mid-19th century, that began to supplant cider as the popular drink. Then, in the early 20th century came the temperance movement and Prohibition, with widely circulated tales of zealots like Carrie Nation chopping or burning down cider orchards. Those stories are mostly apocryphal, but what did change was the perception of the apple — from an ingredient in cider making to something healthy that you ate fresh. The turn of the 20th century was when the marketing slogan “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” became mainstream. By the mid-20th century, the nationwide standardization of fruit for the growing supermarket industry meant relying less on idiosyncratic local varieties and more on dessert apples such as Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, or Granny Smith. In any case, heirloom apples are now kept alive most often in small orchards, coveted by cider makers who blend them with tart crab apples and foraged wild fruit.

Likewise, heritage cider is made mostly by small local producers, people who live in close connection to their apples. On my cider journey, I’ve focused mainly on this so-called heritage cider, and the curious varieties used to make it. Modern cider does not need my help. More than three-quarters of the cider in the United States is produced and sold by large brands such as Angry Orchard, Strongbow, Woodchuck, Crispin, and Stella Artois Cidre, all owned by huge beverage conglomerates. While Angry Orchard does produce a few heritage bottlings, it and the others make predominantly modern cider. No judgment here, and if that’s the sort of cider you enjoy, cheers!

My feeling is that if a fermented apple beverage is ultimately going to capture hearts and minds, it will be heritage cider. I’m interested in cider makers who are revivalists, committed to hard work in the orchard, and whose ciders tell the story of a specific place and time. Whose ciders have, dare we say it, terroir. This wine-like concept makes a lot of cider people, many of whom came to cider via craft beer, very uneasy. “Do apples exhibit terroir, that rather pretentious term applied to wine grapes grown on different soils and in different climates?” Ben Watson asked in a 2018 essay for the cider zine Malus. Watson — who wrote the seminal cider book “Cider, Hard and Sweet” in the 1990s — answered yes to his own question. But note the hand-wringing and characterization of terroir as “rather pretentious.”

To be clear, terroir is not any more pretentious than other French words that you use every day, such as café, salad, omelet, cliché, entrepreneur, encore, fiancé, or toilet. Terroir is simply a fact of agricultural life: better sweet onions come from Vidalia, Georgia, better Ruby Red grapefruit from Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, better almonds from California, better maple syrup from Vermont, better lobster from Maine. When I was growing up, I was made to understand that the best tomatoes came from near our home in southern New Jersey.

For cider apples, one of the world’s great terroirs happens to exist in a humble, beautiful corner of upstate New York called the Finger Lakes, a cluster of 11 long, narrow lakes about a four-hour drive northwest from Manhattan and less than an hour south of Rochester. I already knew that New York was the nation’s second-largest apple-producing state. But I’d never tasted a Finger Lakes cider until Dan Pucci poured me several at Wassail, holding forth on the pristine farming practices and old-time apple varieties that abounded there. I was immediately blown away by the depth, complexity, and drinkability. These were stunning examples of heritage cider from more than a half-dozen producers. Clearly, some type of cider revival was happening up there. My obsession blossomed, and before I knew it, the Finger Lakes had become almost a second home.

Wouldn’t it have been fascinating to be on the ground in California wine country in the mid-20th century, when winemakers like Robert Mondavi were still just dreaming about American wines being taken seriously by wine connoisseurs? This would have been long before most people had any knowledge of wine geography or vintages or even basic grape varieties like chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. Think about Napa Valley in, say, the early 1960s, right around the time E&J Gallo introduced its sweet, mass-market “Hearty Burgundy” wine. The wine world did not take California wine seriously. In the early 1960s, producers like Beringer, Charles Krug, and Ridge were still laboring in relative obscurity, while iconic wineries like Mondavi and Stag’s Leap had still not been founded. By 1972, Time magazine was still touting a jug of Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy as “the best wine value in the country today.” Only a few years later, Napa wines’ popularity exploded after the Judgment of Paris, the famed blind tasting when artisan California wines rated above those from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

You hear echoes of Napa’s early days in the cider scene around New York’s Finger Lakes. The thin isthmus between deep blue Cayuga and Seneca lakes may have the finest concentration of artisan cideries in the nation. What’s emerging is a legitimate cider trail stretching from Ithaca in the south, through the village of Trumansburg, all the way north to Geneva. It’s still early, but if I squint into the horizon, I believe I can see it.

I was familiar with the Finger Lakes as a solid cool-climate wine region, renowned for its riesling, cabernet franc, and even blaufränkisch, and I’d spent some time there researching my wine book. I knew day-trippers flocked on sunny days during fall harvest season to taste wine. The lakes, some of the deepest in North America, contribute to a unique microclimate. Since they never freeze, the lakes modulate midwinter temperatures while keeping things cool in the summers. That microclimate is coupled with rich, fertile, well-drained Cazenovia and Honeoye soils, formed from glacial till. This all creates one of the nation’s great fruit-growing regions — for grapes and apples. Yet terroir is not simply about climate and soil, and that’s why it’s so often misunderstood. Terroir is also about intangible culture. As I dove deeper, I saw cider treated with similar respect as the wine.

On a sunny autumn Saturday afternoon at the Finger Lakes Cider House in Interlaken, on a hill with views of Cayuga Lake, I would nudge my way through a boisterous crowd in the tasting room to sample flights of cider. On the deck, a diverse crowd — young and old, straight and gay, white and people of color — snacked on local cheese and charcuterie, picked apples from the orchard, or played cornhole near the barn. “We’re proud apple growers and cider makers, just like winemakers who are growers of wine grapes,” said Melissa Madden, who owns the cider house and farm with Garrett Miller, along with their cider label Kite & String. One afternoon, while I sampled their Champagne-method ciders, I could see Madden plowing the soil with two horses, in the same old-fashioned way as her Mennonite neighbors. Upon my first visit, I joined the Kite & String cider club just so I’d have a regular reason to return.

Just up the road, at Blackduck Cidery in Ovid, inside a tasting room in a converted barn, iconoclastic and prodigiously bearded John Reynolds pours wild-fermented ciders, riffing on both English and Spanish styles, some a high percentage of bracing crab apples, and some using pears, chokeberries, or currants along with the apples. “People who come here looking for a sweet cider are going to be really disappointed,” Reynolds told me. “Our ciders are dry, have a lot of acidity, and they’re funky.” Yet every time I’ve tasted there with a crowd, I’ve seen people happily surprised by the ciders. “Crab apples?” said a middle-aged woman, “Remember when we used to throw them at each other as kids!” “Ohhh,” replied her sister. “I actually like these ciders; they’re not at all sugary or too appley!”

Just south of the Finger Lakes Cider House and Blackduck, past Bellwether Hard Cider, is downtown Trumansburg, where you’ll find plenty of front yards with established apple trees. Here, it’s not uncommon to run into cider makers getting coffee, their trucks outside full of the apples they’ve just harvested from a decades-old home orchard, or foraged from the nearby National Forest.

On the outskirts of town sits Black Diamond Farm, where Cornell University emeritus professor Ian Merwin maintains 64 acres with several gorgeous orchards, the first of which he planted in the early 1990s. Black Diamond’s apples are both for cider as well as sold as fruit at local farm markets. On special weekends, Merwin might be giving orchard tours and pouring ciders like his blend of Porter’s Perfection, a British bittersharp, and Golden Russet, a New York heirloom originating not far from here in the 18th century. “Cider is the historic beverage in this part of the world,” Merwin said. “But in the last 20 years, there’s been a tremendous revival.” The connection between the Finger Lakes cider community and Cornell University — both its main campus in Ithaca and its experimental agriculture campus in Geneva — is strong, similar to the historic relationship between California wine country and the University of California at Davis.

Each fall, throughout the region, special attention is paid to the apple, New York’s leading fruit crop, and to cider. During Finger Lakes Cider Week, restaurants like Hazelnut in Trumansburg or Graft in Watkins Glen will host cider-pairing menus. During Ithaca’s apple harvest festival, in the wineshops downtown, you’re just as likely to find a cider tasting. For instance, at Red Feet Wine Market, near the Ithaca Farmers Market, I attended a presentation on “Finger Lakes Cider in International Context” with comparative tastings between local ciders and those from the Basque Country, Normandy, and the Alps. That presentation was given by a cider maker named Autumn Stoscheck, who’s been making her Eve’s Cider here for two decades. If we’re keeping with our Napa Valley metaphor, Autumn Stoscheck would be the Robert Mondavi character in the Finger Lakes cider story. Thirty people crowded into the store to taste, as Autumn told them stories about centuries and decades past in the Finger Lakes, when cider mills abounded. She asked the crowd, “Why did we forget about cider?”

Jason Wilson is the author of “Godforsaken Grapes,” “Boozehound,” and “The Cider Revival,” out now. Find him at jasonwilson.com.

Writing mostly to myself. Sharing some of it with you. Hope it helps.