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WWM Interviews: Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Ciders

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American cider might be seeing the beginning of a full-blown renaissance. If so, it would seem to indicate a maturation of the American palate and an ever-broadening return to tradition. The same trends can be found in other drinks: a more natural approach to wine, a more crafted and regional approach to beer, a revival of classic cocktails and their seemingly obscure ingredients. For too long we've associated cider with cloying sweetness or with nonalcoholic juice served warm at the county fair. Nothing wrong with either, except that they have very little in common with traditional cider, which is as diverse in its offerings as it is rich with history. Recently, I corresponded with cidermaker Diane Flynt, owner of Foggy Ridge Ciders in Dugspur, Virginia. In her lilting voice, Flynt speaks with a precision regarding her craft that in no way masks the pure joy she finds as an orchardist and cidermaker. We talked harvests, the intricacies of apple varieties, the differences between certain cider regions and the joys of farming in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

(Note: Foggy Ridge was recently chosen as the top American dry cider in a great article written by Eric Asimov in the New York Times. Out interview took place on October 30, a week before that article was published.)

-Scott Lyon

Woodland Wine Merchant: First off, congratulations on the good press in last week's Times. For an orchardist, this must be a wonderful time of year. What was your 2013 harvest like?

Diane Flynt: 2013 included a cool fall, cool wet summer and just about perfect fall harvest. Apples (and grapes too) like a diurnal swing, or a significant difference between daytime high temperatures and nighttime low temperatures. Foggy Ridge Cider's orchards are at 3000' feet elevation in the Southern Appalachians, so we experience warm days and cool nights. I look for good acid levels in our fruit, and 2013 fruit has good acidity as well as complex flavors from our near perfect fall.

WWM: What's the difference between a "dessert" apple and a "cider" apple? And how are their orchards different?

DF: Dessert apples are simply apples traditionally grown for eating rather than for cider—which also, in our world of Big Farming, dessert fruit often also means apples that can be grown, harvested and shipped efficiently. Cider apples have similar characteristics to wine grapes, that is, a balance of tannin, acid and fruit that contributes all three flavor components to a fermented beverage.

Tannin is a key component of cider fruit, and this makes many cider apples inedible, or at best unappealing to eat out of hand. While many great cider apples are also tasty, the high tannin varieties such as Tremlett's Bitter, Dabinett and even Hewe's Crab, the famous Southern cider apple, are far too bitter and acidic to enjoy eating. So the difference between dessert apple and cider apple is flavor, tannin level but also how the apple is grown and harvested, and how it travels.

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My trees will out live me, and will produce fruit long after I'm gone. I don't want to damage our excellent rocky soil, or pollute our water supply or do anything other than enrich and strengthen the environment in which I farm.

WWM: How did you choose the varieties of apples that are planted in your orchard? How many varieties do you have?

DF: At Foggy Ridge Cider we grow over 30 apples, all chosen for cidermaking. Some, like Cox's Orange Pippin, Albemarle Pippin and Roxbury Russett, are delicious eating apples. But many are somewhat challenging, like Ashmead's Kernel, our "acid bomb", or downright inedible, like Tremlett's Bitter. Though we grow several English cider apples, we focus on American heirloom apples suitable for cidermaking. I love Hewe's Crab, the key ingredient in Foggy Ridge First Fruit Cider. Harrison is another great Colonial American cider apple (from Harrison, NJ) as is Black Limbertwig, an apple long grown in the Southern Appalachians.

WWM: At the moment, cider is seeing something of a bourgeoning or a resurgence in popularity. Why now?

DF: Cider is having its moment! The top Macro or Factory Cider brands grew over 60% in 2012; artisan cidermakers are experiencing fast growth as well, fueled by several factors. On the national stage, Macro cider is growing in large part because beer sales are flat or dropping. The Macro Beer categories have purchased cider producers (Crispin, Angry Orchard) or have started their own (Stella Artois Cidre), and are pursuing cider drinkers in earnest with well funded marketing campaigns as a way to recapture market share. Macro Cider has cleverly positioned their cider brands as "artisan" and has capitalized on the gluten free moniker.

This is all interesting from a business standpoint but let me say while I think artisan cider has had double digit growth for over five years—Farm Cider is just plain delicious. Just like wine from a smaller winery, with carefully grown and fermented grapes, artisan cider is complex; it speaks of terroir; it is interesting and is an ideal food beverage. Consumers interested in the provenance of their food and beverage like the idea of estate cider. People interested in eating locally or regionally prefer a beverage that is crafted from ingredients that aren't shipped in containers from Europe, the Midwest or even China.

WWM: What differentiates your ciders from, say, those Macro brands that you mention?

DF: First, our focus on the fruit, on quality ingredients is what most differentiates Foggy Ridge Cider. Second, we ferment our cider like a fine winemaker ferments wine. All our cider is fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel; we ferment cold to get a long, slow ferment designed to maintain the fruity esters and complex flavors of our fruit. We tank age our cider for months and we carefully blend many ferments into our four sparkling ciders and our apple port. We don't add flavorings and use neutral yeasts designed to perform at low temperatures and highlight the flavors and aromas of the fruit, rather than introduce flavors (no Belgian ale yeast, for example!)

Some Macro Ciders say "our cider is made with spring water" or "we get from apple to bottle in one month". We don't chaptalize, which is a common practice for less expensive and more commercial brands; we don't ferment from concentrate (quite common also) and we don't flavor our cider with ginger, cherry, pumpkin, sugar or anything else.

Image courtesy foggyridgecider.com

Why drink a highly commercial cider from England, likely chaptalized, colored with caramel and full of sugar, when you can enjoy a cider made from cider apples. Full stop.

WWM: You seem to favor the English tradition of cidermaking, as opposed to the traditions of Normandy or the Basque Country. What draws you in to those particular ciders?

DF: In America, artisan cidermakers are creating our own traditions. First the fruit—many European varieties don't grow well in this country, or are just not widely grown.  Normandy cider is delicious, but it also has that "European funk" that does not always translate well to American palates. Basque Cider, much of which is sold as vinegar (really, look it up), has a place and can be quite exciting paired with Basque food, but this cider style tips too far toward the acetic acid end of the spectrum for my palate. While there are more and more artisan ciders available in England, the English ciders we get here are all quite commercial.

The American cider tradition is quite rich with excellent cider fruit and a variety of cidermaking styles. We are all feeling our way, but I'm most excited by ciders from Farnum Hill in New Hampshire, Slyboro and Eve's Cider in NY and Eden Ice Cider in Vermont. Why drink a highly commercial cider from England, likely chaptalized, colored with caramel and full of sugar, when you can enjoy a cider made from cider apples. Full stop.

WWM: Talk to me about your philosophy of farming. What's your approach to the land? How did you find what is now Foggy Ridge?

DF: As you can tell from my comments about Farm and Factory Cider, my views on farming drive my approach to beverage making. "Respect the land" is my guiding principle. My trees will out live me, and will produce fruit long after I'm gone. I don't want to damage our excellent rocky soil, or pollute our water supply or do anything other than enrich and strengthen the environment in which I farm. A tree, like a grape vine, is a tube that transports water and nutrients into fruit. As a farmer, I need to take care of that "tube", that tree that creates flavor.

My husband and I spent our early careers in NC. We looked for farm land for over three years before finding this tiny corner of Virginia. Foggy Ridge Cider is on the Blue Ridge Plateau, the southernmost Zone 5 planting region due to elevation. Our mountain orchards are steep; the soil is rocky and we have a big diurnal swing all year. Ideal for fruit growing!

WWM: Where did you learn to manage an orchard, or to make cider for that matter? Who are your heroes in the apple or cider world?

DF: I studied cidermaking in England, and winemaking here in the US. While our orchard was growing, I worked with cidermakers in CA and in New England, which was one of the most valuable things I did to build my knowledge. Cidermaking is a young art in the US, but the principles are the same as winemaking (NOT brewing!), so there is much knowledge to draw on. Pomologists at VA Tech and at Cornell advised me on our orchard lay out and I found the original 30 varieties in our test orchard with Tom Burford's help, a VA orchardist and expert on heirloom apples.

I most admire apple growers who constantly experiment with cider apples and take risks in their orchards. Steve Wood at Farnum Hill is the best cider apple grower in the US, in my view. I also admire John Saunders at Silver Creek Orchard in Nelson County, VA. John has planted over 3000 trees with grafting wood from Foggy Ridge Cider orchards. In the cider world, I learn from Eleanor Leger, owner of Eden Ice Cider in Vermont, every time I talk to her.

WWM: What's your favorite food & cider pairing? 

DF: People should keep in mind that cider is not one thing—there are bone dry ciders, fruity cider, tart acidic cider and tannic cider. Oh, and sweet cider too! For a dry cider, like Foggy Ridge Serious Cider, I like those classic Brut Champagne pairings like a rich creamy cheese or something salty and fatty, like pomme frites or rich crab cakes. A tart fruity cider, like our First Fruit Cider, is ideal with rich meat dishes like pork belly or braises. Cider with some residual sugar pairs well with spicy dishes, like BBQ or Asian foods.

My cheese friends tell me that cider is a much better partner for cheese than wine. I like our apple port, the dessert cider we call Foggy Ridge Pippin Gold, with blue cheese, walnuts and dried fruit. And aside from the seasonal connection, cider is perfect with Thanksgiving food. A tannic red wine fights with the many sweet and spicy notes on a holiday table, but a crisp clean cider just marries all the flavors.

WWM: Do you have a favorite apple variety? What makes it special for you?

DF: Tom Burford always says his favorite apple is "the last one I ate." I like acidity so Ashmead's Kernel is my all time favorite eating apple. I'm eating late season apples now, and will through the winter, so Winesap, Arkansas Black and Limbertwig are all on my table.

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Woodland Wine Merchant carries a small assortment of Foggy Ridge Ciders, which, frankly, we think are pretty dang delicious. Don't let your fall feasts be without.
Foggy Ridge Serious Cider (750ml) — $18 Foggy Ridge First Fruit (750ml) — $ 18 Foggy Ridge Handmade (500ml) — $ 14

Patrick Piuze

woodlandwinemerchant

As a young man, Canadian-born Patrick Piuze roamed the world working the land on four continents. He loved wine, had met the famous winemaker Marc Chapoutier, and went roving from Australia to Israel in search of authentic knowledge. He landed years later in Burgundy, France, where with uncanny speed he found competence and gained the trust of Olivier Leflaive and later Jean-Marc Brocard of Verget. He worked vineyards with famous names, made wines adorned by famous labels. His reputation grew. In 2008, Patrick struck out on his own and set up shop in Chablis, where he sources grapes from an assortment of the best vineyards in the region. From the beginning, his wines have been celebrated for their purity and their power. It doesn't hurt that his neighbors include the Dauvissats and François Raveneau. Patrick says he's learned much from these masters and that they have been supportive of his endeavor from the start. "I get together with those guys and we drink beer. Mostly Belgian beer." In fact, Patrick trades his wines for cases of ale, which he shares liberally. Seems he's learned a thing or two about making friends as well as wine.

Today he produces two brands: Val de Mer, an approachable set made from younger vines, and his eponymous Patrick Piuze wines which include single vineyard Grands Crus, Premieres Crus and village-level wines from Chablis. His approach to winemaking is simple: buy the highest quality grapes he can find under long-term contracts, work directly with the growers all year to tease out the best possible expression of terroir, add nothing to them and take nothing away.

"I don't want to put on any makeup," Patrick says. "I want to show the density of the wine, but I don't want to hide the minerality. The first thing new wood will do is hide the minerality. That is our personality. Why would we hide it?" To accentuate that density he picks his grapes in the morning when the skins are tighter (in the afternoon the grapes slacken under the sun). He also harvests everything by hand, even at the village level. To preserve the terroir he uses mostly stainless steel with occasional neutral oak for aging.

Lately, Patrick has ventured more and more into sparkling wines. With Val de Mer he has produced two Cremants de Bourgogne, a white and a rosé. He points out that sparkling wine, unlike still wine, is largely made in the bottle. "Once it's in bottle, you cannot intervene, unlike a barrel. If something goes wrong there is nothing you can do." To get it right, as with everything else he's done to this point, he went straight to the source, ingratiating himself with some of Champagne's most notable grower-producers after being turned away from several others. The man is persistent. So are his wines. And he continues to evolve.

Between his 2011 and 2012 vintages he changed from tall and narrow tanks to wide and shallow, allowing more lees contact without having to stir. And last year he changed from a pneumatic to a mechanical press in order to increase the extraction of his wines. These experimentations with shape and form allow him to strive for purer wines without resorting to heavy-handed manipulations.

It's a quest for authenticity, purity and power. And M. Piuze is stationed squarely at the intersection of all three.

The Wines

Patrick Piuze Petit Chablis - $25 Val de Mer Bourgogne - $20 Val de Mer Bourgogne rosé - $20 Val de Mer Cremant de Bourgogne non dosé - $20 Val de Mer Cremant de Bourgogne rosé - $20

WWM Interviews: Alice Feiring

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Alice Feiring has become, over the last five years, one of the most important voices in American wine writing. After publishing her first book The Battle for Wine and Love in 2008, Alice found herself at the center of the most controversial topic to hit the wine world in a generation—what is commonly called 'natural wine.' She has gained passionate followers and critics alike for her outspoken support of wines with minimal intervention, wines she defines as having "nothing added, nothing taken away." She publishes regularly in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, New York Magazine, and more. She is the recipient of a James Beard Award and was named 2011 Louis Roederer International Wine Feature Writer of the Year. She is the author of two books, The Battle for Wine and Love (2008, Harcourt) and Naked Wine (2011, Perseus Books).

In October 2012 Alice launched her current project, The Feiring Line, a newsletter of exclusive wine stories and recommendations, which has once again grabbed the attention of critics and wine lovers nationwide. It is a great resource to anyone wanting to learn, read about or revel in the leading edge of wine.

Sign up for her newsletter here. Or read her articles and blog posts by visiting her website, alicefeiring.com.

I met Alice at the Jenny & Francois 2013 Winemakers Dinner in the basement of The Smith, in New York's East Village. We talked wine, writing, farming and mutual friends. The following interview is based on that meeting and a subsequent email conversation.

-Scott Lyon

Hi, Alice. So kind of you to agree to this interview, especially since I know you've been on the road a lot lately. What is the response like, traveling around, to your take on wine? Have you had any delightful surprises? 

Perhaps the biggest thrill was when the Champagne producer Francis Boulard asked for my autograph. I was so touched, and a little embarrassed because I should be asking him for his signature. It's been a deep honor to get the respect of vignerons of his caliber.

Wow! Francis Boulard asked for your autograph? What did you sign for him?

He apologized that he didn’t have Le Vin Nu with him, so he gave me his Renaissance des Appellations tasting book. (This was at the tasting in Angers, 2012).

Speaking of Boulard—ego boosts aside, in your worldview, what makes a great Champagne? Who are your favorite producers?

The same thing as everything else: great original material, an ideal location and soil, the lowest sulfur you can get away with and a talented winemaker. It seems as if I do like a natural first fermentation as well. Producers? Boulard, Bouchard, Prévost, Colin, Bereche, Larmandier, Lassaigne, Vouette et Sorbée, Bedel, Leclapart, Laval, Tarlant—it goes on and on, sorry for other favorites that I forgot to mention.

Since you wrote your first book the conversation surrounding real/authentic/natural wine has taken some unexpected turns and come under great scrutiny. Plenty of notable figures have weighed in. Do you ever fear ideology might get in the way? Or has this been a healthy debate?

The bickering is silly. People are so threatened by the wines and the fact that many people are loving them. The people who yell the loudest, like Michel Chapoutier or Michel Bettane, seem to have the most to lose in customers and credibility, so it makes sense they’ve been vocal. But it is indeed healthy. When it all shakes down, the public will be more aware of how much not-natural can be done to a wine. Now that people are clamoring for them, there will be more to choose from. The new generation will be making very different wines than their fathers. So while the debate can get dirty, the outcome will be terrific.

You seem to refer to a sort of end point where natural wine is more normative, or at least less embattled maybe. Do you see it that way? How close are we to that point?

Well, I don’t know about normative! For example, I’m in Proseccoland and yesterday had lunch at a restaurant that had a mostly ‘normal’ wine list, but when the word natural wine came up, he knew exactly what we were talking about. There wasn’t a whole lot but to see Kante on the list was amazing (and cheap too). Conventional wineries will stop fighting and eventually create a ‘natural’ line extension for their ‘brands.’ That has already begun to happen. I can’t forecast, but how long before we see 2 Buck Chuck sans souffre? Give it under five years.

Process and philosophy are at the heart of what you write about. How important is language?

Very! Often I get into trouble on Twitter because of language. So hard to avoid a dogmatic sounding message when you have to eliminate the frill and the nuance, but the nuance in talking about wine is so important. There are few absolutes.

You've said you came to the newsletter somewhat reluctantly, not being a fan of the "tasting notes format." And yet The Feiring Line has been well received. How do you approach recommendation that is different than other wine newsletters? Is story still a part of your process?

I realized many people just want to know what I like to drink, and so I gave in. But again, the narrative is essential. The newsletter has about 3-4 articles and 20 recommendations. I've selected a number of icons, you can see them for yourself here:

http://www.alicefeiring.com/newsletter/key-to-wine-recommendation-symbols.html

I give my tasting note, then plug in an assortment of symbols that suit the wine. In the collection of symbols, a story emerges. For example, if a wine has a hardcore, classic and cool stuff, you might be scratching your head for a while to see what I mean, but the clues will be in the words.

In that system, are you recreating experiences you've had personally, whether through talking to winemakers or reading? I mean, is that head-scratching or aha! moment something you feel is essential to loving wine?

I am trying to recreate an experience, yes. In the assortment of icons a sort of pastiche about the wine is formed. Is it easy to drink or does it take the 'geek' to know it? Is it a wine for everyone or does it presume a certain inclination to a kind of wine? Or at least a forewarning? Is it simply a wine I'm nuts about? A wine that is cool enough to warrant attention and thought? A classic example?

Your mission includes "hunting the Phillip Roths... of the wine world," but after his recent retirement announcement you wrote on your blog about a sort of intellectual break-up with the master novelist. Have you had any similar disillusionments in the wine world? 

I didn't see that as an intellectual breakup. I experienced more a feeling of being abandoned. His retirement had such a strange effect on me. I almost considered throwing in the towel as well. I went though a terrible time for a few months, swearing I’d not write another book and just devote myself to my new job and the newsletter. Then little by little, some stories took me over and there it is, I'm back thinking about the next books. It's a wonderful feeling. But disillusionments in the wine world? Yes. The attack on natural wine has been shameful. Last June a wine shop in Rome was fined and will be taken to court for offering ‘natural wine.’ Tom Wark’s Fermentation wine blog wrote a much publicized piece called Natural Wine: The Ugly Underbelly, accusing ‘them’ of unfair marketing practices (what marketing practices?). They are called brown, fizzy, unstable, with apple cider vinegar tastes. Is this kind of wine the enemy? I mean, come on, what could be indefensible about a wine that has, at it’s heart, nothing added or taken away?

I am also puzzled by natural wine being seen as stylish (since when is something that tastes good stylish?) but even worse—and this was expected—is industrial winemakers and firms using the word natural in advertisements, and companies like big prosecco makers trying to get my interest because they use a technology to avoid sulfur.

Outside of the natural wine world, I am constantly amazed by the self-importance of Bordeaux and amused by the Wine Advocate suing Antonio Galloni for his wine reviews and use of the 100-point system.

About that question of sulfur. I think there's a lot of misinformation about sulfites out there, and I'm constantly baffled as to where it all comes from. Like, "I get headaches from wine and someone told me it's because of the sulfites. Do you have any wine that doesn't have sulfites?" As a retailer, we get that question a lot. What's your take? Are sulfites an important part of the natural wine conversation? 

This is complicated. Sulfur is an element that binds with oxygen to become sulfite or Sulfur Dioxide (So2). This happens naturally as a byproduct of fermentation. This is very different than added sulfites, which most often are petrochemical derivates. It is also different than the addition of elemental (volcanic, for example) sulfur. And not all additions are created equal. Legal limits for white wine are around 220 parts per million. A natural wine might have some added to 20ppm. Also, there is a lot more to have a reaction to in conventional wine than sulfur. Tannin addition. Added acidity. Enzymes… for example.

Beaujolais took a big hit in 2012. As did much of France. How will the effects differ, in your estimation, between large industrial operations and the small-scale vignerons you know and love?

200 growers went out of biz in 2012 in Beaujolais. Those who really suffered are people growing grapes for negociants like Dubouef, working on volume, who don’t have bottle sales to rely on. Those are the folks who collapse. Those working organically, naturally and generally, well, they're surviving. Those are the people who are putting their names on the bottle. So someone like Dutraive whose domaine is in Fleurie, who suffered but was clearly not too concerned—he told me with a shrug, “It’s agriculture. I’m doing ok.” The key to these vintages (and there will be very little wine) is to stay away even more from large companies. The only hope for good wines was in rigorous selection, and you have to have very high standards to pull this off when most grapes would go straight into the garbage. In other words, stick to the small guys in the 2012 vintage and you’ll be okay. Let’s hope for better luck in 2013 and 2014.

If you could curl up with one book and one bottle of wine from your past, together, right now, what would they be? 

My "Desperately Seeking Scanavino" chapter in The Battle [for Wine and Love] and the 1968 Scanavino Barolo. Also, getting my hands on an early Martin Ray pinot (never had one) and reading Vineyards in the Sky wouldn’t be bad either.

Since you're now in the business of recommending: can you suggest a few places for our readers to visit, should they want to experience wine the way you have? 

I think it’s best, no matter where you're going, to call up or write the vignerons you really admire and tell them you love their wines and want to see their vines. There’s nothing like sincere flattery to get a door to open. Of course, if you can get an introduction through an importer or a wine store, that will go the extra mile as well. The best hospitality will be in places not overrun by tourists, such as in the Langeudoc, for example St. Chinian. And if the winemaker, like for example, Jean-Marie Rimbert, has a chambre d’hôte, what could be better?