The challenge with making apple cider in Sonoma County is an ironic one: it can be hard to find apples. Especially when you’re shopping strictly for certified organic kinds. But the team at Sonoma Cider in Healdsburg is working to change that, one juicy piece of fruit at a time.
In 1940, the county reached its peak of 14,000 acres in apple orchards, many producing the region’s signature Gravenstein heirlooms. Now grape vines rule, and there are just 2,320 acres in apples, according to the 2014 Sonoma County Crop Report.
“We started buying local apples right off the bat, but quickly found out there are not as many certified organic apples locally as we would like to see,” said Sonoma Cider co-owner Robert Cordtz.
Yet since 2013, when Cordtz and his father, David Cordtz, opened the 16,000-square-foot distillery and warehouse in a former auto parts store on Mill Street, the craft cidery has been building up a reliable network of growers in Healdsburg, Sebastopol and other Sonoma County towns.
About 10 percent of the fruit now comes from local trees, rounding out the vast majority shipped from Washington.
As the business grows — cider production has more than doubled each year from the first year’s 65,000 cases — so has the company’s buying power. Asking his 30 employees to keep their eyes peeled for available hometown fruit is working, too.
“As time has gone on, we have been able to align ourselves with more area orchards,” Cordtz said, noting that he recently secured fruit from a winery orchard just down the street from his Golden Delicious small batch release.
“I particularly want all of the Gravenstein apples.”
And soon, Sonoma Cider Co. is going to need a lot more of the precious fruit. A 5,000-square-foot fermentation, event and tasting room space is slated to open this summer behind the distillery.
With seating for 60, it will have a kitchen serving pub food and extras like live music and comedy. But the primary function will be showcasing the eight base ciders, seasonal ciders and new products like an 85-proof apple brandy.
The Cordtz clan can count on plenty of competition for their harvest, though.
Apple cider, and particularly the company’s alcohol-kissed hard cider, is increasingly popular in Wine Country.
Hard cider was a $500 million U.S. industry last year, according to Impact Databank Cider Report, and more companies keep popping up, capitalizing on the craze for the bittersweet-bittersharp quaff that can burst with a near endless array of flavors, an easy drinking alcohol level of 5 to 7 percent, and a crisp, clean finish.
There are 56 large and small commercial cider producers in California alone, notes the Cyder Market online database, with a dozen in Sonoma County.
To stand out from the crowd, Cordtz focuses on inventive recipes like his Crowbar, made with organic apples, organic habanero peppers and organic limes.
The Pulley is spiked with fennel for an absinthe-style black licorice hint, while the Bananaweiss is fermented with hefeweizen yeast and bananas for an aroma like banana cream pie.
Cordtz imports sarsaparilla roots from India for a vanilla-spiked Washboard label that is so reminiscent of root beer that Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar on the Healdsburg Plaza makes an ice cream with it.