104 Bolton Rd | Harvard, MA 01451 | 978-415-WINE (9463)

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The Boston Globe Magazine

Drink Your Apples

Entering Still River Winery’s production facility makes you wonder, for a fleeting moment, whether you have fallen down the rabbit hole. Descending the worn ramp into the basement where Wade, Margot, and son Leif Holtzman produce apple ice wine is not the typical winery experience. But neither is this a booze-in-the-bathtub operation. Here in Harvard, in the middle of apple country, the Holtzmans have outfitted a 1,500-square-foot facility with high-tech “cold rooms” and enough equipment to make a mad scientist blush; there are blocks of frozen cider thawing, vats of wine slowly fermenting, bottles being filled with the finished product. Solar panels outside supply 25 percent of the operation’s electricity.

And what comes out of this place is bliss in a glass. With a pristine flavor that is not quite cider, not quite apple juice, and not quite apple wine, the Holtzmans’ Apfel Eis is sweet and tart without the fire of apple spirits like Calvados or the tang of hard cider.

Having made their first batch only three years ago, the Holtzmans and their one full-time employee, Ted Sawyer, are making inroads quickly. Their wine, which retails for $25 per 375-milliliter bottle, is sold in more than 400 stores and restaurants in New England.

Returning from a trip to Quebec’s Ice Hotel in 2007, Wade and Margot stopped at a duty-free shop for a bottle or two of eiswein (made from grapes purposely left on the vine to freeze), which they had enjoyed for years. They also noticed cidre de glace, a Canadian specialty wine made from frozen cider and developed in the 1990s; they took a couple of bottles home.

“We fell in love with it,” Margot says. Although neither is sure which of them first suggested they make their own apple ice wine, the quest began. As home beer brewers, Wade and Leif (now studying for his MBA at Stanford) tried every method of production, even freezing whole apples, before research and trial and error brought them to their current recipe, which calls for a proprietary blend of cider from Central Massachusetts apples, about 80 of them per bottle; they now produce 19,200 bottles a year. An antique furniture restorer, Wade says he’s a tinkerer by nature and truly delights in the process. “Everyone wants to be the boss and not the worker,” he says. “I am the other way around.”

Each week, year-round, the Holtzmans haul 150 gallons of unpasteurized pressed cider from Box Mill Farm in Stow. Every 4½ gallons of juice goes into a 5-gallon plastic jug, which is frozen and then slowly defrosted.

“What drips first is the very rich concentrated juice,” says Margot. The process is repeated twice, reducing the initial 4½ gallons of juice down to a single gallon. Unlike hard cider or other fruit wines, Apfel Eis has no added sugar. Concentrating the juice concentrates the sweetness. The concentrated juice is poured into 5-gallon glass carboys and inoculated with yeast, which converts the natural juice sugars to alcohol, then placed in one of three cold rooms that maintain an ideal fermentation temperature of 50 degrees. It takes about three months to bring the alcohol level to 12 percent.

Finally, the cloudy, cider-colored fermented juice is ready, and sulfites are added to stop fermentation. The juice “sits on its lees” – that cloudy matter, actually yeasts and tiny bits of ground apple from the cider-making process – for two weeks to develop a deeper flavor before being transferred to 50-gallon stainless-steel tanks. After three to four weeks there, it is filtered twice to achieve a crystal-clear gold color. The bottling and corking is done one bottle at a time at least three times a month. Labels, designed by Leif, are attached.

“We are at a perfect size right now,” Margot says of the 1,600 cases they produce each year. “We could do tons more, but we couldn’t do it the way we do it. Everything is necessary to make the wine what it is.”

The winery is part of a statewide trend. According to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the state is now home to 44 licensed farmer wineries, more than triple the number in 1994. The state’s wineries handcraft and bottle wine and hard cider from fruits including grapes, apples, blueberries, and cranberries.

State Agricultural Commissioner Scott Soares is not surprised that consumers are supporting new local products like apple ice wine. “The Commonwealth is known for its great agricultural soils and regions,” he says. “We are a small state, but the diversity in products is fabulous.”

The Holtzmans may be content with the size of their winery, but not the status quo. Having created a sparkling version of Apfel Eis for Leif’s wedding last year, they hope to get the sparkler on their retailers’ shelves before Thanksgiving. Recent legislation allows licensed farmer wineries to sell at farmers’ markets, so they participated in 14 this summer (and plan to continue at several winter farmers’ markets, including Natick’s), adding another layer to their work of juggling orders, distribution, and winemaking. But with summers off from her full-time job as a learning specialist at the Cambridge Friends School, Margot enjoyed interacting with customers and witnessing the connection of raw material, product, and consumer.

“Being part of the local community,” says Leif, “using local resources, and taking part in local fund-raisers and farmers’ markets is an extremely important part of Still River Winery. Our hope is that fellow New Englanders appreciate the fact that our wine is produced so close to where they live, with 100 percent of the fruit grown in local orchards.”

 

The Passionate Foodie

Wine Battle Royale

It was an epic contest, my own Wine Battle Royale. A head-to-head competition between Apfel Eis, of Massachusetts, and Neige, of Canada, both apple ice wines. Which would prevail? Would the local wine defeat its foreign competitor? When the tasting was over, who would emerge the victor?

I first encountered Apfel Eis at the Boston Wine Expo, where I also tasted some Neige, though I did not taste them together. At the time, it seemed that the two apple ice wines presented somewhat different styles and flavors. Yet I wondered how the two dessert wines would compare if tasted together and tasted blind. I was not sure the Expo really gave me an accurate comparison of the two wines. So I arranged my own private taste test.

The set-up: Two identical shot glasses, marked on the bottom. I filled each glass with the two different apple ice wines and then had someone else mix them up so I would not know which was which. And then I did the same for my drinking companion.

Both wines looked the same so I could not differentiate them by their color. I then tasted both wines, trying to detect their differences. To my surprise, they were nearly identical in taste except that one may have been slightly tarter than the other. My drinking companion came to the same conclusion, except felt that the other wine was slightly tarter. We both agreed though that the wines tasted essentially the same. I have tasted the two together a couple more times since then, comparing and contrasting them again, and with the same results.

So does that mean the Battle Royale was a tie? No, it does not because there are other factors, besides their similar taste, to consider. First, there is price. The Apfel Eis is $24.99 but the Neige ranges from $27-$30. As the Apfel is less expensive, it gains a bonus. Second, the Apfel is made locally in Massachusetts as opposed to Neige which is from Canada. If you are concerned about buying locally, or supporting local companies, then the Apfel gains another bonus.

So, weighing in those other factors, I consider the Winner to be the Apfel Eis.

As I have previously successfully paired the Neige with various apple desserts, then I have no question that the Apfel Eis would do equally as well with such desserts. I have also recently paired with Apfel Eis with various cheeses, crackers and agave nectar. It paired very well with the cheeses, especially the firmer ones like Manchego though it was delicious with Cheddar too. So instead of pairing a white or red wine with your cheese plate, why not consider the Apfel Eis instead?

Harvard Magazine

Alumni Focus: A New England Farmer Winery

The Holtzmans:  Entrepreneurs, apple ice wine makers

“Want to try the sparkling version?” It is 10:30 in the morning as Wade Holtzman flips the lid on a bottle of carbonated apple ice wine he has carefully tended and fermented for three months in his family’s basement, now home to Still River Winery, in Harvard, Massachusetts. “Oh yes,” say his son, Leif ’05, and wife, Margot, Ed.M. ’72, happily holding up their empty glasses.

The Holtzmans have been making apple ice wine since 2008, when they first tasted a bottle of cidre de glace brought home from a trip to Quebec. “We all fell in love with it,” says Margot. “And we thought, ‘Why not make this ourselves?’”

The beverage was invented in Quebec around 1989, using the same techniques that yield the grape ice wine typically produced in Germany and Canada. Made right, the wine is not overly sweet and has a satisfyingly earthy flavor; it carries the same alcohol level as a glass of white wine—12 percent—and is typically drunk chilled before or after a meal. (It pairs especially well with pork, poultry, lobster, and sharp cheeses.) Leif says the carbonated version, which the family produced just for his then-pending wedding, “is a little like apple soda. Because you can’t taste the alcohol, it can sneak up on you.”

Traditional ice wine uses grapes that have frozen on the vine, but the Holtzmans begin with unpasteurized apple juice fresh-pressed from the nearby Carlson Orchards, a 120-acre farm that grows 14 varieties of apples and has been in business since 1936. The liquid is frozen in containers, then allowed to drip-thaw for 24 hours. This process, repeated three times, separates out the watery residue and concentrates the apple juice to its richest state of sugar, acid, and flavor. A five-gallon jug of juice yields about one-and-a-half gallons of concentrated appleness, and the sugar content shifts from 9 percent to 32 percent before fermentation. Once yeast has been added, the concentrate is left to ferment for three months at 50 degrees until the wine is ready for bottling.

Wade, who runs his own business as an antique furniture restorer from another part of the house, is the primary winemaker. Margot, a learning specialist at Cambridge Friends School, takes care of the administrative work; Leif, who studied psychology and economics at Harvard and has worked in online advertising, has overseen business strategy and marketing. Although he enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business this fall, he plans to remain an integral part of expanding the winery.

Still River’s annual capacity as a farmer winery (its official classification) is 1,600 cases per year, or 19,200 bottles; the Holtzmans have made a small profit so far selling in four New England states (check stillriverwinery.com for retail locations). In 2011, they plan to take advantage of a new Massachusetts law that allows farmer wineries to sell at farmers’ markets. That personal touch, Leif agrees, is crucial: “Locally grown, natural products are associated with better health and a smaller environmental impact, which is what people are looking for.”

The Holtzmans, for example, still fill and seal one bottle of ice wine at a time, using labels Leif designed. His parents fully expect him to fly home from Palo Alto for the annual marathon bottling session and hope he will cultivate relationships with California wineries for possible future partnerships. Leif laughs at this, but says he will do what he can. “It is a unique, gratifying experience to be able to hold something in your hand that you made and that people enjoy,” he says, looking around the basement, then at his parents. “And that we all enjoy ourselves.” Salud.