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.”