ELLEN CAVALLI AND SCOTT HEATH OF TILTED SHED CIDERY COME OF AGE
Ours is a story of not really knowing what you want to be when you grow up,” Ellen Cavalli says thoughtfully. She is standing in the airy kitchen of her Forestville farmhouse, surrounded by her seven-year-old son Benny’s projects, her husband Scott Heath’s artwork, and several empty cider bottles when a chicken struts in the back door. “You shouldn’t be in here,” she says affably to the bird, shooing it back out. It’s clear that whatever Cavalli wanted to be when she grew up no longer matters, because where she is as a grown-up is plenty fine.
In truth, Cavalli wanted to be a writer; Heath, an artist. While she still works as a freelance cookbook editor and Heath’s handsome lithographs adorn the walls, what they both are is cider makers.
Cavalli describes cider making, and their Tilted Shed cidery in particular, as a “hobby gone wild.” The couple first met as six-year-olds growing up in Alameda, but reconnected as 23-year-olds in New York City. Heath was getting his MFA and she was working for a magazine. Their relationship grew and they decided to set out from the city on their own. After one failed attempt to live off the land in New Mexico, they briefly returned East to revamp before heading back to the area between Santa Fe and Taos determined to try again. This time they got lucky. The two-acre farm they rented had a small orchard.
“It was a classic apple-growing site, actually, but that was secondary to us,” Cavalli says. “We started doing market farming, raising chickens for eggs, selling at the local farmers’ market. We had a little baby.”
Their idyll was interrupted when what they were supposed to be as grown-ups finally happened.
“Our first year there, we had a bumper crop of apples,” Cavalli remembers. “We were trying to learn skills, those skill sets that we’ve all lost through modern culture and industrialization. We tried to do a lot of canning, a lot of processing of our own foods, and of course—trying to make your own booze is a natural.”
Daunted by the amount of apples they had (“I could never make that much applesauce,” Cavalli laughs), the couple decided to press the fruit. “We had a double-sided press and put it in a few carboys, put it out in our barn, and let it sit over the winter. We didn’t have any expectations for it,” she says. “Every cider we’d ever tasted was just so sweet—it was just like apple juice with vodka.”
But this cider was different. A light bulb went off, Cavalli says. They had no idea that cider could be dry. That it could have nuances and layers of flavors.
“We started reading everything that we could on cider,” she says, “and then that’s when we started to learn about the history of cider, that there are special apples for cider, that there are people doing this in really traditional way where they’re making cider beautiful, so we started tasting it—and then it just became an obsession.”
The obsession directed their lives. They moved back to California, looking for land on which to grow apples so that they could make cider. West County, given its history with the fruit, was the natural choice, and in 2010 they were able to buy the modest two-acre lot on Gravenstein Highway where they now live. There were five apple trees already there. Heath immediately planted 80 more.
The timing was right. According to the 2013 Sonoma County Economic Development Board’s report on local craft beverages, cider sales were up 70 percent nationally in 2012. As an example, Cavalli and Heath’s Tilted Shed cidery has quadrupled production since they started in 2011. Tilted Shed joins the California Cider Co. (which produces Ace Cider), Murray’s Cyder, Sonoma Cider, and Devoto Orchards Cider in this burgeoning local market.
Perhaps best of all from a producer’s point of view, cider costs more than beer, and unlike that beverage—which has an 80 percent male fan base—cider is gender-neutral. Everybody likes the stuff.
If they can understand it. Tilted Shed’s hard apple cider taste profile is based around tannins and acids, very much like a good wine. They are typically dry with a light natural effervescence and utilize bittersweet and bittersharp apples, which are becoming increasingly rare. And, Tilted Shed bottles boast an alcohol by volume (ABV) rating higher than most beer. Their Barred Rock Bourbon-Aged Cider, for example, clocks in at a stiff 8.8 percent ABV; Graviva and Lost Orchard blends, at 8 percent ABV.
“This is a very interesting point with cider,” Cavalli says. “We ferment to dryness, that’s what the fruit gives us. Just as with wine grapes, the factors with the apples change. They’re starting to pick grapes earlier to restrain the ABVs. You can’t do that with apples. The starches haven’t converted to sugars yet and they’re not quite ready.
You’re just dealing with unripe fruit. We pick when those sugars have concentrated and it’s a fully developed apple. If it’s a high brix, it’s a high brix. We can’t control that. The only thing we can control for is our blending.”
And, if you’re finding lower ABVs in your ciders, Cavalli says, you’re probably getting a healthy dose of water and/or apple juice in the mix.
“For us, if you start putting juice back or you start putting water there, you don’t have the true expression of that fruit,” Cavalli says. “You don’t have cider. You have juice mixed with cider. You have some other product. And it’s just something we won’t do. We categorically refuse to do it.”
The reason that other cider makers might be tempted to add water or juice to their product isn’t because they’re intrinsically evil or want people to drink more watery juice; as with so many things, it’s about regulations. If the product is at 7 percent ABV or higher, it’s categorized as “still wine” and has a whole different set of legal obligations. Cavalli can’t label her Tilted Shed ciders as “gluten-free,” even though they are, because it’s a health claim that a still wine can’t make. She can’t list a vintage year or a harvest date because that’s reserved for grape wine.
“People who want to avoid all of that will dilute their ciders so that they can put whatever they want on their labels,” she says, noting that beverages under 7 percent ABV go under FDA voluntary guidelines, which are friendlier to the producer.
“Even though we’ve lived all over, California is where our tastes were formed,” Cavalli says. “We’ve known really good wine, we’ve known really good beer. That informs how we approach our ciders, and we have a real respect for the traditions. Just to make something a low ABV, if that’s not what the fruit should be, that’s not what it should be for us.”
Tilted Shed—and there really is a wobbly old building at the foot of Cavalli and Heath’s property supplying the name—sources its apples from 10 farms within a five-mile radius of their home, including from two “lost” orchards that were planted to heirloom cider varieties some four decades ago and forgotten about. Heath heard about them in conversation and sought the owners out. A secret—Cavalli won’t even begin to hint at their whereabouts—the old orchards are now tended by her family, coaxing the last dry-farmed apples from those wizened trees while they wait for their own orchard to come into maturity.
Planting apples in wine country has a quaint sound to it, but for Cavalli, replanting apples after they’ve been torn out for grapes is part of a fuller circle. Plus, it’s a radical act.
“I think that part of it could be due to what Slow Food has been doing, what the Go Local movement has been doing, asking us to look at what you have in your own backyard,” Cavalli says. “You know: Let’s save this; it’s worth saving. This is part of our heritage, this is part of our culture—it’s putting the ‘culture’ back in ‘agriculture.’ It’s part of why people are into heritage grains and why people are into kombucha and all of these other things, to see what we can do here that gives our place real culture and meaning when so much of it has been taken away from us by the industrial food complex.
“We’re all trying to grasp some real authenticity where people really are connected to what they eat—and what they drink, by extension.”
And so, the printmaker and the writer, the couple who just wanted to make art, find themselves with a full life and filthy hands.
“Lately, I’ve been thinking: ‘This doesn’t make any sense. Why are we doing this?’” Cavalli says. “And the only answer I can come up with is that we’ve always wanted to create the sublime, to make beautiful things. Art and writing weren’t the right venues for us, but working with these apples and working with the dirt and the land and getting to know it and getting to experience it over time—perhaps for us, that’s our creative outlet. I’ve always heard about people getting swept up in passion and I thought that was bunk, but we’ve really love it. We love it so much that we moved here.”