Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Wine Flaws

  It’s so much easier conversing with the internationally good-looking people of Miami Beach. It's like you don’t even need to introduce yourself, you can just tell right away these are deep, interesting people and you are going to hit it off perfectly. In contrast, in rural cultures -such as mine up there in the mountains of New York -it’s always a total surprise when you meet someone of interest. You just wouldn't expect it by looking them!
  Every winter I go down to Miami so that I can relate to people without all those flaws in the way- Big noses, love-handles, crooked teeth and splotchy skin… how is anyone supposed to get to know you? What a relief it is to be in Miami where the men are all sculpted as if by Michelangelo and the women seem painted by Botticelli (except with larger breasts, of course- they didn't have the science in 15th century Florence to correct boob size.)
  Miamians know perfection takes a lot of effort, but it’s worth it.
  Perfect people, by definition, don’t have flaws. They don’t have barriers hanging-out, preventing us from digging deeper, blocking us from getting to know the person. I mean seriously, why can’t everyone else just do the necessary work? Maybe it’s because rural people still believe in God and not science? (I don't know, just guess.) Everyone knows that science has made this planet a lot healthier than it's ever been! Or maybe it’s just because rural people don’t have the money to be perfect? I don't know, I can't relate. But whatever their hangups are, I hope they evolve soon because let me tell you: this is one ugly planet! How are we to get to know one another with all these flaws in the way?!?!
   I wrote this bit of satire after a conversation about ‘wine flaws’ with a notable cider/ wine buyer. Her take on the subject is that flaws are inherently distracting. She sorts through a drink (like my East Branch, which she was specifically commenting on, but the waxing broader) as an auditor or inspector would: taking inventory of the notes, rather than experiencing them as the flow in an overall story. My argument, or defense to flaws, is that if the apples have deep and positive character then the flaws can even enhance the experience and make the cider more human. (It should be noted that this buyer is also well versed on Western European ciders, naturally fermented ciders like in Normandy or Somerset, where "clean" cider doesn't even exist.) So to hear criticism of earthy or farmy notes confuses me. I see those qualities as layers in a complex orchestra.

  But let's be clear, we are not talking about overwhelming flaws, or purposely introduced yeast traits. Objectionable issues or contrived yeast styles do stick out like soar thumbs, and yes, they are a distraction from the apple (but in most poorly based ciders (as are most American ciders) that distraction is welcome.) No, what we are talking about in this essay are those faint farmy and earthy notes that you get in any high quality British or French cider, keeved or dry. These notes can also be briney, oaky, or even meaty but they are faint, peripheral and strangely complimentary to the mystery and message of the apple. How is that a flaw?

 Oh, I wish I could write more on this subject! There is so much about the American obsession with perfection and there is so much to our fear of flaws (and are they the same thing?) that I could write for months. For instance, I'm sure our need to conquer flaws in wine is completely related to monocultural farming, personal hygiene, and our national approach to human health! Ah, but the subject is too huge to take on in the middle of the pressing season. Perhaps this winter…

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Voice Mail From a Journalist

“Hello, Mr. Pollock? Would you prefer Jackson?
I’m calling because I’m writing a story about mid-century art and I'm hoping to hit you and Norman Rockwell up for interviews. Please give me a call back at your earliest convenience. Thanks!” 

OK, I’m not comparing myself to Lee Krasner’s baldie, and I’m certainly not comparing cider to fine art, but a situational analogy exists here. How many times do I get calls from journalists wanting to do a story on cider? And although I’ve tried and tried to illuminate the massive depths apples are capable of, in the end the final article is always just an all-inclusive survey of "the cider category." And if that's all you can report on, I would gladly retire to magazine obscurity rather than see my work and the life of real cider trees reduced to a few sentences in a short essay about contemporary commercial cider. I know plenty of other "cider makers" who are #TheFace #ofCider who will gladly answer your calls and mislead you about the tradition. If you want to believe American cider producers stand united in their efforts, those are the person to call, not me. 

If Jackson Pollock saw his art put in the comparative context with the customer-friendly, child-friendly, illustrations of Norman Rockwell I’m pretty sure his liver would see some immediate damage. But the two “artists” were rarely in context with one another because there existed a separate world for "fine art" and "commercial art”. (Which is really commercial illustration and not art. Sorry marketing team: what you do isn't art!) 

But why is having separate worlds so hard to establish with cider? Why do the lines keep getting blurred when fine art and commercial art are NEVER put in the same context with one another? The answers are multiple:
    -The small cider producer is too isolated and economically powerless to broadcast the truth; the big and medium-sized producers lie to the customer and steal the verbiage of the artisan producer; the customer is lazy and doesn’t hold producers accountable for their marketing misdirection; Americas apple farmers are complicit with the misdirection because they want their orchards to be viable to a ‘hot’ industry; and journalists lack professional integrity and personal faith in the subject-

I have tried to expose all those other problems with my cryptic and voiceless little blog here, but for this entry let’s focus on the latter problem, the journalists. Why not? You are part of the problem! Ask yourself:
 -Are you guilty of sweeping a call list trying to hit-up everyone that appeared under your Goggle search for "cider"?
 -Are you trying to tie this story into another story like tourism, the fall season, new businesses in the area, etc., etc.?
 -Does this "cider story" somehow reflect well on the sponsors of your media? (Or maybe, it's just plain about them!?) Can you say, "product placement?"
 -Did you already imagine how this story will unfold even before you made your first call? Maybe it's already written (!) and now all you need are some press photos from cider producers to add legitimacy your non-expert opinion!
Does any of this sound like you? Um, That’s because you suck. You are just trying to use cider and someones' full life endeavor to promote yourself. Wake up! There is an actual story to discover if you stop making everything reflect back on yourself and your sponsors!

In contrast, let me tell you what good journalists do. (And I’ve had the pleasure of working with some excellent journalists and writers over the years. You know who you are.)
   They call and set-up an interview expecting to study the subject, not direct it. A good journalist listens to the subject and isolates them without trying to tie them into every little trend happening in the world today. They trust their own ability to write the story with the found material and they do not have preconceived notions or the word-counts in mind while the interview is taking place. They also trust the subject will be news-worthy, but just as importantly, they ditch the project if the subject is not news-worthy! And a good journalist starts months (even years) ahead of time rather then calling 3 days before submittal. 

OK, I'm getting a little side-track with my rant here. I don't know the problems you journalists face getting published but I'm tired of going over the same-old Cider 101 stuff with you. And I know magazines are not to blame for the lack of clarity between fine cider and commercial industrial cider but you certainly are not helping (save for a few good reporters) by blurring the lines for the reader. Dig deeper next time, the trees have. (Or should I say, the trees worthy of cider have.)

Monday, August 29, 2016

What gives cider depth

I have seen old overgrown orchards of Liberty, Goldrush and Freedom dotting a steep hillside. And I have seen well-maintained high-density orchards of Yarlington Mill, Somerset Redstreak and Stoke Red.
If the cider industry and apple growers don't understand how the former can produce much more complex cider than the latter then I weep for the future.  
-to be continued in comment section, below-

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ah, poor man!

THE era of the Wild Apple will soon be past. It is a fruit which will probably become extinct in New England. You may still wander through old orchards of native fruit of great extent, which for the most part went to the cider-mill, now all gone to decay. I have heard of an orchard in a distant town, on the side of a hill, where the apples rolled down and lay four feet deep against a wall on the lower side, and this the owner cut down for fear they should be made into cider. Since the temperance reform and the general introduction of grafted fruit, no native apple-trees, such as I see everywhere in deserted pastures, and where the woods have grown up around them, are set out. I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know! Notwithstanding the prevalence of the Baldwin and the Porter, I doubt if so extensive orchards are set out to-day in my town as there were a century ago, when those vast straggling cider-orchards were planted, when men both ate and drank apples, when the pomace-heap was the only nursery, and trees cost nothing but the trouble of setting them out. Men could afford then to stick a tree by every wall-side and let it take its chance. I see nobody planting trees to-day in such out-of-the-way places, along the lonely roads and lanes, and at the bottom of dells in the wood. Now that they have grafted trees, and pay a price for them, they collect them into a plat by their houses, and fence them in, -- and the end of it all will be that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.
-Thoreau, 1862
No, the wild apple did not go extinct but the way of life most certainly did. I want you to pay special attention the those significant words, "pay a price", in which Thoreau cryptically reveals to us the cause of the inevitable ruin. That cider, and the tree from which it sprung, became an artifice of man's economy.

We don't live in that world anymore. We live in a commercial world with commercial cider from commercial orchards. But the apple is still finding ways to escape! What a miracle of nature!!! There is hope yet for us too.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Again, Wine or Beer?

What is wine? You know the answer to that, but, let me ask you what is the "soul of wine?" It is: the grape vines, the farm, the region, and the people. It's the whole economy around the wine, the whole ecology around the farm, and the whole culture around the people producing wine. In short: It's the whole. The soul of fine-wine exists in a whole, or it does not exist at all.

That being said, in the way-more-than-cider established world of fine wine it's extremely frowned upon for producers to buy grapes, grape must, or finished wine from another region and then market it as "their wine." In the broader wine world there are plenty of exceptions, but in the fine wine world it's clear as day: that's just not done. It erases the location at the foundation of it all. Even in weather disasters, fine-wine producers don't go on to the global market for "their" grapes. It undermines the soul of wine.

Unlike wine, beer is produced in factories. (Or, 99.9% of it is. How many micro-brewers really grow their own ingredients? (And by really, I mean ALL of their ingredients, not just a few hops here and there.) Beer producers work with ingredients from the commodity market and they make magic from it. Yes, I love beer. But beer is nothing like wine. Let's be clear on that.

So what is cider? I'm pretty fanatical on this point: The soul of cider originates in the location where the apples come from, just like wine. The ownership of a cider belongs to the location of the trees. That being the case, and it is, it's ridiculous to say that a cider produced in a city is that city's cider. That's just brewer's talk. Likewise, I don't know how someone can purchase apples from afar and call it "their cider." The location of the apple source should never be hidden. It's reprehensible to do so.

But that's me. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe cider has climbed a new plateau where it can have a soul like wine and capitalize, like beer, on commodity purchasing for mass-production wherever and whenever it's economically advantageous to do so. Hurray for cider!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Pop Quiz

What's the #1 grape in California and the world?
Is it Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay?
Think it might be Zinfandel?
Wrong again.
The answer is Sultana.
"But that's impossible," you might say, "I've never heard of it!"
Ah, but you have! In fact, you know it quite it well. You know it as a large, pale green seedless grape available in every grocery store in America. It's a "table grape", not a "wine grape". But because Sultana is not used for wine it holds a different place in social and commercial contexts. It is, for lack of a better analogy, an entirely different product than those wine grapes named above.

Because of the fact that nearly 100% of the wines in America use only "wine grapes" and nearly 100% of the grocery-stores sell only "table grapes" we have evolved two different agricultural systems for grapes. There's the viticulture famously thriving in the Napa Valley, for instance, and then there's the massive grape farms located in less traveled regions which produce the blemish-free seedless grapes for super markets. Very rarely are wine grapes and table grapes grown on the same farm.

See where I'm going with this? Ever wonder why cider, from America's favorite fruit, is not revered as a fine drink in the U.S. anymore? And now that every apple farm in the country is producing cider these days, do you stop to ponder why all these ciders taste like a watered-down version of a sweet white wine? Do you question why it's so cheap compared to wine? The secret to this lies right there in the Sultana grape. Nearly 100% of the apple farms in America are growing the Sultana equivalent apple and trying to pass it off as equivalent to Merlot. It is not, and I repeat, NOT cider fruit.  

So in the end we have a ruse. We have an exploding industry based almost entirely (no exaggeration) on a fruit that does not exist on American farms. Save but a fraction of 1%, there are no apples cultivated for producing fine cider. What you are drinking is Sultana in a champagne bottle with an elaborate marketing story.
Post script disclaimer: I want to make it perfectly clear that Aaron Burr Cider is also effected by the limited state of apples in America. In our 750ml line of ciders (our "fruit-wine" ciders, blended with other fruit like elderberry and grape) we too use "sultana equivalent" apples, apples which were planted and cultivated on table apple farms. It's for this reason we have always kept this line separate from the pure cider line in the 500ml bottles (the Homestead line.)
The purpose of this post is to prod the cider industry forward by way of cider apple cultivation. Relying on conventional apple farms presents a conflict of interest.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Restaurants: Learn

You got to know this: "wine coolers" are not wine, ketchup is not tomato sauce, and "hard cider" is not cider. Sorry to burst your bubble but the token cider most restaurants and wine bars offer truly is analogous to ketchup.  

Does that sound extreme? Well, it is not. In fact, the more one investigates ketchup and common American hard cider the more the comparison becomes eerily accurate. Ultimately, you would conclude that true cider (or just cider) and American "hard cider" are so vastly different that they wouldn't even belong in the same category, and the mere proximity to one another on a menu is an insult. To confuse the two, or blur the lines, is a failure to represent simplicity, nature, and the truth to the customer.

Let me ask you: Is it possible for a vineyard and wine producer outside of Lyon to produce an inexpensive drink that appeals to American tastes, and enough to stock every restaurant, grocery store and 7eleven in North America? Of course not. The farms are too small for those quantities and true wine is not stretched with water and fabricated in a factory. Sure, "wine coolers" are in every store in America, but wine coolers are not wine; and hard cider is not cider. It's that simple.

If a restaurant wants to offer the full range of ciders made in America, both the industrial hard cider and the true farm cider, then they should put true ciders under the wine category and the hard ciders under the beer category. Beer is a recipe, the variations occur in the processing, whereas wine is a crop and the variations are achieved in the field. That's how hard cider and true cider are different as well. 

I am only partially supportive of the rise of hard cider in America because I am advocate for farmers, and there are a lot of unused dessert apples out there. But a true cider-maker should not concern themselves with that market. The hard cider market may rise or fall, but cider is forever.  From the farm, to the processing, to the market and in it's culinary place in human culture, true cider distinguishes itself as a completely different product to hard cider.

So let me say one more time: that sweet "appely" taste in those beer-can 'hard ciders' is no more representational of fermented apples than ketchup is representational of tomato sauce. Keep thinking about ketchup next time you consider hard cider. And thank my friend Amy for the great metaphor!...