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.