Despite now having worked in the wine industry in California for 25 years, I did not have the opportunity to witness that unique burst of energy and creativity that took California from producing just wine to producing fine wine. That moment happened before my time in the 1970s when a small group of passionate and dedicated people began to experiment with variety and place, with new techniques and also applied old world technique to the production of wine. It resulted in truly important wines and awoke America and the world to the potential for wine made in California. Those artisans were wielding the tip of the spear.
For anyone who appreciates fine drink created by artisans and craftspeople, you should be aware that a similarly creative moment for cider is upon us. Young, ambitious, passionate folks across the country are today dedicating themselves to the proposition that revelatory cider ought to be produced and Americans ought to be given the chance to experience it. The tip of the cider spear is being thrust toward this goal.
Among those wielding this spear that thoughtful cider lovers ought to know are Ellen Cavalli and Scott Heath of Tilted Head Ciderworks in Sonoma California.
Together, Ellen and Scott work in a small, non-descript shed located in Forrestville. It’s a cramped and crowed little shed nestled between a sheep pasture and a small olive grove. It’s insanely bucolic in their little part of the world. Inside their shed (which is not the shed reference in their brand name) Scott ferment, blends and bottles and stores the Tilted Shed ciders that have brought the two and their ciders to the attention of the Ciderati.
Ellen and Scott are natives of California who discovered Cider while living in New Mexico. A few batches were made there and the two were hooked. They set out to learn everything they could about the beverage from its history to the nature of the traditional cider apples, to the people who were currently working in the industry to how to produce cider on a more professional and artistic scale. Upon returning to Northern California, Scott declared they could make this their career; that they could do something of importance; that they could make a life for themselves attempting to produce something revelatory.
Scott, the cidermaker, is a lean, good-looking, average sized man. Ellen is pixyish with a compelling grin. Together they founded Tilted Shed in 2011. In a short three years they have been able to produce and sell a small amount of remarkable cider from Sonoma County apples and have additionally embarked on a grafting and planting regimen that will result in an important orchard of traditional cider apples that will take then into the future and likely keep them wielding the pointy end of the revolutionary cider spear.
I visited Scott and Ellen in their cider shed recently on a day that turned out to be the first really toasty hot day of the year in Northern California. When I arrived in the morning, after driving down two rocky, dirt roads, I thought I was lost. The gray shed/garage was there, but it seemed liked something abandoned until Scott appeared out of the door.
Ellen arrived moments later, scarfed and in jeans and with a hop in her step. After a chat, we proceeded to taste their bottled ciders as well as ciders made from single varieties that would eventually be blended into their 2013 ciders.
I’m convinced that they only way to truly delve deep into cider and what makes it special is by tasting ciders made from single varieties. It’s akin to examining the different rooms of a home in order to truly get a feel for the house. It’s the best way to appreciate how craft cider gathers its complexity.
What’s absolutely clear to Ellen Cavalli is that craft cider producers must jump at the opportunity presented by the increased interest in cider to educate as many people as possible as to what truly fine cider is and can be, lest drinkers are seduced by mass marketed apple sugar and alcohol. I agree with her.
On the one hand, she appreciates that the mass produced ciders will be used to introduce a whole generation to cider. On the other hand, she fears that too many will, upon tasting the commercial, mass distributed sweet stuff, conclude cider is just mass produced sweet stuff. It undoubtedly will be producers like her who will be responsible for making sure this doesn’t happen.
The problem however is bandwidth. Tilted Shed Ciderworks is a two and half man operation (their young son Benjamin chips in). The orchard tending, the cidermaking and the sales are all done by this young couple. Finding the time to evangelize isn’t easy. For now, the most important tool in spreading the word will be their ciders.
Previously at The Cider Journal I reviewed their 2013 January Barbecued Smoked Cider (4 stars). This unique cider is literally a style all its own and I highly recommend you seek it out. Additionally, the two produce Graviva, a primarily Gravenstein Apple-driven Cider produced from local apples. A Barred Rock Barrel Aged Cider produced from local Sonoma Heirloom apples is their third cider.
Their final cider is the Lost Orchard Dry Cider, produced from an apple orchard Scott discovered in West Sonoma County. I will be formally reviewing all these ciders, but in advance of that I want to draw your attention to the Lost Orchard. Tasted with Scott and Ellen in their little production shed, I found this a stunningly good drink. It is what the Ciderati, the white tablecloth restaurants and the finest bottle shops are looking for. It is what folks like Scott and Ellen will use to help convince Americans that this country’s cider can be great….and revelatory.
The California winemakers of the 1970s and early 1980s who looked to take wine to the next level were not pioneers. The pioneers came before them. Instead, they were the ones that proved that California wine was something that could be celebrated. Ellen and Scott are among that small but growing contingent of artisans that will do the same for American cider.
You can learn more about Tilted Shed Ciderworks at their very dense website located at: http://www.tiltedshed.com.