Crafting Cider at Foggy Ridge with Diane Flynt
Growing up near her grandparents’ farm, Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider has always wanted to return to the land. “I graduated from college in the ‘back to the land’ movement and really wanted to be a farmer,” said Diane, “but I couldn’t envision how to do that in an economically sustainable way, so I parked that ambition and had a wonderful career in the business world.” When she married at the age of 40, it was understood that she and her husband would some day return to farming. “By that time I had explored a lot of options horticulturally and really knew that I liked growing woody plants, trees and shrubs,” she added. “I also knew that I needed the intellectual stimulation of making something.” And so, in late 1997, Diane and her husband planted their first apple cider trees.
Situated at 3,000 feet, the orchards at Foggy Ridge benefit from a 30ºF diurnal swing. Home to the Blue Ridge Plateau, the hills here are gentle. “It’s like Piedmont or the Hudson River Valley,” she said. “It’s farmland. So it’s just perfect for apples. And because it’s elevated, you get the prevailing winds from the northwest that come over Bluefield, over Kentucky and over Tennessee.”
In 1997, cider was hard to find, and there certainly weren’t any cidermakers in the south. Working together with Pomologist Dr. Rich Maroney of Virginia Tech, Diane determined rootstocks. “But what I lacked, and what’s been a real exploration for us, is the varieties,” she said. “Because cider varieties hadn’t been grown in Virginia since colonial times, since Thomas Jefferson had his cider apple orchard at Monticello. We went back and planted many of the varieties that Jefferson planted.”
When she connected with Steve Wood at Farnum Hill Ciders, he was then making very bitter cider. Diane realized that she had a different palate. “ I love Steve’s ciders,” she said, “but I wanted to make something else. I like something that’s crisper. That’s fruiter. That is less of the barnyard, earthy, leathery notes. I like high altitude northern European white wines, and northern Italian whites. The crisp, high acid wines with a tiny bit of residual sugar, that are great food beverages.” And so Diane planted to her palate.
In preparation for her test orchard, Diane obtained varieties from an English cidermaker, who packed some grafting wood and shipped it overseas in the mail. She purchased others from the Fruit Station at Cornell. She also worked with heirloom apple companies in California and North Carolina. “Some of the apples we grow for aromatics and complex flavors are actually good eating apples like Cox’s Orange Pippin, Grimes Golden, Pitmaston Pineapple and Ralls Janet.”
Planting a dozen of each of her 30 varietals, Diane realized she had five years to learn how to make cider, because that’s how long it’d take for her trees to bear fruit. Downsizing her corporate job to consulting, Diane spent a week a month in California, taking winemaking courses, sensory sessions and classes at the Wine Lab. She made note of when her trees bloomed. She fermented fruit in carboys to see what each of the varietals could do. She ran yeast trials, and in 2003 they planted two additional orchards for production.
Recently, Diane has gone back to the test orchard and top grafted her old trees with new varieties. With the help of Raul Godinez who’s a master grafter, Diane said, “We took about 50 of these original 370 trees and we top-worked them into varieties I want to experiment with for the next round, so we put in more Dabinett. And we also top-grafted another variety called Red Field, it’s a red fleshed apple.”
And even though there is vintage variation, Diane concedes that it’s difficult to achieve really complex flavors because apples are delicate vehicles. Compared to Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, apple varieties are not as robust. “Maybe Tremlett’s Bitter or Kingston Blacks, some of the bittersweets or bittersharps,” she said, “but most apples are very delicate. And when you ferment them very carefully, cold to keep the fruity esters, the tastes can be elusive. So, if you want a layered complex cider, I believe it’s essential to use some skill in the cellar in addition to skill in the orchard. I’m a total believer in blending for cider.”
When she launched her first ciders in 2005, Diane made 350 cases and sold 10% on the first day that she opened the tasting room. And while this year yielded 5,300 cases, she realizes that perhaps the sweet spot lies between 4,000 and 5,000 cases a year. An industry that’s seen 400% growth in the past three years, there’s a deep divide between those who craft cider like wine and those who make cider like beer, including a number of unsavory productions.
“Think about mass market wines like Yellow Tail. Those aren’t made from grapes,” said Diane. “They’re made from concentrate that comes to the production facility in a tanker. That’s how Angry Orchard is made. That’s how Stella’s Cider, all the beer company owned ciders are made. Angry Orchard has used their $30 million a year advertising budget to make people think it’s that old guy putting apples on the back of the truck. Their innovation is to purchase apple concentrate from Europe, so they have some bittersweet and bittersharp concentrate.
“And then you have regional mass markets and those are ciders made a lot like beer,” she added. “They’re sometimes described as batch ciders because you have the cidermaker who’s buying apples or juice from someone, who buys apples from cold storage, all year long, to ferment their single tank of cider.” From that single tank they might age their juice in a number of different barrels or add flavors and introduce a line of three ‘craft’ ciders. “For cidermakers who make cider that’s more like wine, Foggy Ridge, Eve’s Cidery, Farnum Hill, we’re frustrated when people ask what’s new. We say, well the 2014 is new and it’s different from 2013.”
As a way to ensure that the tradition of making honest cider continues to have it‘s place in the cider market, Diane has instituted an intern program, where an individual receives a paid internship for a year. They’ve graduated three thus far. One woman, who went on to become the cidermaker at Stems Ciders in Denver, Colorado, and another is helping his family establish their agrotourism business in Tennessee, which will include a cider component.
“Starting Foggy Ridge and doing what we’ve done has been more of everything,” said Diane. “It’s been more fun, more connections with people, more creative. I’ve learned more. I’ve worked harder. It’s cost more money. We’ve made more money. It’s been more of everything. And it a tornado came through the orchard tomorrow and ripped everything up,” she said and smiled. “I’d say this was fabulous.”
Diane will be in NYC for Cider week, so check the events page for her schedule and come taste Foggy Ridge!