A Winery is Born in Harvard

by Nicholas Kouros

Imagine taking a sip or two of a sweet, golden nectar and finding yourself transported to an apple orchard on a crisp fall day. That seemingly magical goal has in fact been reached, if awards and accolades are any testament, by the Holtzman family of Harvard.

Wade and Margot Holtzman, with help from their son, Leif, have made the leap from conception to perfection with their unique version of apple ice wine, which they produce at their winery, Still River Winery, in Harvard. They market their tall, slender bottles of golden nectar as “apfel ice.”

Still River Winery’s creation was recently awarded a gold medal at the 2009 International Eastern Wine Competition, a silver medal at the 2009 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, and Best Beverage at the 2009 Taste of Nashoba Valley.

Ice wine (also known as Eiswein) is traditionally made from grapes that have remained on the vine past the first frost. When the grapes freeze, the frozen water crystals separate out, resulting in a juice that contains more sugar, acid, and flavor than regular wine. If the painstakingly complex, time-consuming process of fermenting this concentrated grape “must” is done properly it produces a deliciously sweet, if expensive, wine.

In January 2008, the Holtzman family visited Quebec and happened to taste an ice wine made from apples. Apple ice wine has only recently been developed (around 1990) by a French winemaker who emigrated to Quebec. He reasoned that the apple was more “at home” than was the grape on Canadian soil, and would, therefore, result in a better product. He was correct.

Upon tasting Canadian apple ice wine, the Holtzmans had a similar epiphany. If apples that were grown in Canada could produce a pleasing ice wine, didn’t it stand to reason that apples from the heart of apple country in central Massachusetts—which happens to have the most ideal soil, climate, and hours of sunlight to grow delicious apples—would produce a remarkably better one? They returned home determined to give it a try.

After researching the methods of creating ice wine, the Holtzmans created a small batch to try with friends. The enthusiastic response motivated them to refine the process. Since the best-tasting apple varieties fall from the trees before a hard frost, the Holtzmans had to figure out a way to separate out the frozen water crystals from the raw, unfiltered, unfermented, pressed apples they obtain from local cider producers. They freeze the cider into an icy state, then use a proprietary process they developed to separate the water crystals from the cider before they begin fermentation. The separation process reduces five gallons of cider to one gallon.

Fermentation itself takes place over months, at very cold temperatures, to preserve delicate flavors and aromas that would disappear if fermentation occurred more quickly at warmer temperatures. The Holtzmans found that using a special yeast that can withstand very cold temperatures allowed them to ferment the wine over long periods in five-gallon batches, instead of in the 250-gallon tanks that are used in commercial wineries. This process also allows them to avoid having to add any sugar (which is typically added to most wines and ciders made from apples) either before or after fermentation.

After fermentation, ultra-high sterile filtration is performed that reduces bacteria and yeast to .25 microns. This process allows for very long storage with less than half the sulfites that are added to most white wines. The result is being heralded as a unique taste sensation—sweet, with a gentle bite, complex flavor, and clean finish. Each batch is made from a blend of local varietal apples, and over 80 apples go into the making of each bottle, which costs $24.99.

In September 2008 the Holtzmans took their creation to the Newport Wine Festival where they received a very good reception, giving them the confidence to expand their production and look for retailers in Massachusetts while obtaining a license to distribute nationally. After jumping through many bureaucratic hoops over several months, Still River Winery is now licensed to distribute globally. Between 75 and 100 retailers sell the wine.

Still, Wade Holtzman considers his family’s winery to be a “nano-winery,” as it is considerably smaller than a micro-brewery.  The Holtzmans would like to double the 400 cases per year that they produce, and are getting their space ready to handle greater production.

The winery’s website address is www.StillRiverWinery.com.