Somewhere on the banks of the Russian River is a wild, abandoned apple orchard with a treasure-trove of heirloom apples. Not that the casual passer-by would be much interested, since most of these ancient varietals — Roxbury Russet, Muscat de Bernay — aren't all that tasty for eating. But to Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli, they're priceless.
The owners of Forestville's Tilted Shed Ciderworks spent months searching out bittersweet cider apples planted by long-ago orchardists. Mostly forgotten in favor of sweeter Gravensteins or plowed under for vineyards, they're part of West County's past. And now they're brought to life again in a handful of cases of Lost Orchard Dry Cider released this fall. Without much residual sugar and with a lightly tannic finish, the cider has more in common with sparkling wine than the treacly mixer that passes for cider in many bar taps.
Gently carbonated and aged for six to eight months, the couple's other ciders are equally intriguing: A semi-dry Gravenstein-based cider called Graviva and a forthcoming release called Smoked Cider that uses smoked apples as its base.
Still in the micro-production stage, with just 700 or so bottles in their first release, Heath and Cavalli operate their business mostly out of a neighbor's cider press and their Forestville farm, which sits on 5.4 acres. Committed to using only heirloom cider varietals from Sonoma County, they spent this summer planting their own cider orchard, expected to be in production by 2014. Until then, they seek out the few and far-between West County orchards that have some of the heirloom cider varietals tucked away in forgotten corners.
"It's a bit of a scavenger hunt to find these scarce apples in Sonoma County," said Cavalli.
With growing interest in craft ciders, akin to the boom of craft beers in the 1980s, says Cavalli, they hope to increase interest in grafting cider apples to existing apple trees in West County and strengthening the region's historic connection as an apple-growing region.
And the name? It turns out there actually is a tilted shed on the couple's property that inspired the moniker. The old wooden barn withstood decades of abuse, but the introduction of several sheep in a nearby pen may spell its ultimate destruction as tilt becomes something more akin to askew. Its legacy, however, is assured on each year's labels.
Want to get a taste? Watch for Tilted Shed to show up at some local grocers later this fall. Until then, you can order online at tiltedshed.com.
(Backstory is a new column about the people and places around the county we think we know, but often don't. Have a backstory you'd like to see in print? Email email@example.com.)