Good wine: Wine expert happy to be wrong about cider
What I don't know about cider is a lot.
So, when contacted by David Cordtz, cidermaster of Sonoma Cider for a tasting, and facing the crush of preholiday duties, I emphatically responded "No, no, no!"
"No, there's gluten in cider" said I, a card-carrying Celiac. But yes, David assured me, cider is gluten-free.
"No, I only cover products available for sale in the Chicago area." But yes, Sonoma Cider is available at major liquor and grocery chains (along with many other ciders, as I was about to learn).
"No, I feature beverages of broad appeal and complex flavors that are delicious with cuisine."
So, Cordtz hits me with statistics: 300 percent growth in cider sales since 2011 (compared to the modest 200 percent growth of craft beer). So yes, there's broad appeal.
Next, he launches into his favorite cider and food combos: dishes served with apples (pork chops with apple sauce, cheese and sausages, fondue and quiche); dishes with fruit sauce (turkey with cranberries, Indian curry with chutney and fruity barbecues); dishes requiring solid acidity (salads with creamy dressing and sushi).
Intrigued, I agree to taste. In each variety in Sonoma Cider's line -- "The Anvil" Bourbon Cider, "The Hatchet" Apple and "The Pitchfork" Pear Ciders -- I find alluring aromas, nuanced flavors and an exciting balance of fruit, acidity and alcohol. The same qualities, in fact, this palate looks for in ... wine.
"Yes, cider is wine," laughed 20-year winemaker Cordtz. "It's just marketed like beer."
It turns out that cider and beer have had an on-again, off-again relationship for centuries.
Cider was America's earliest cold frothy one, brought to the colonies by cider-loving Brits. With a New England climate that encouraged neither grapes for wine nor grain for beer, cider was a nutritious quaff, more sanitary than water and a moderate alternative to high-alcohol Port, Sherry and apple jack.
As Johnny Appleseed and other pioneers pushed West, orchards flourished but so did amber waves of grain. In the 1800s, immigration and drinking preference shifted to beer-loving Germans.
In the 1900s cider was hit by the triple threat of time, space and capital. Grain fields cropped in a year; orchards took a decade to bear fruit. Apples were bulky and required refrigeration to ship; grain was easily transferred to ever-increasing urban areas and their breweries.
With Prohibition, cider orchards were re-purposed for cooking and highly profitable fresh eating apples.
Nearly a century later, cider got a boost from the folks that once gave it the boot -- major breweries.
To ride the wave of craft beer, Anheuser-Busch, Boston Beer Co. and MillerCoors launched craft ciders with marketing campaigns no small producer could finance. Cider brought an added gift by attracting a new, non-beer-drinking customer, often snatched away from wine.
Today, domestic and imported ciders fill shelves in groceries and boutique wine shops. In Chicago, Shawnee Bruno, winebuyer for In Fine Spirits (5418 N. Clark Street) favors "The Unified Press" by Vermont's Citizen Cider, Seattle Cider's "Pumpkin Spice" and ciders from Michigan-based Vander Mill. Michigan-based Virtue Cider (from former Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall) is a favorite of Daily Herald Food Editor Deborah Pankey.
My favorite cider is this week's "Ross's Choice." While delicious, it is also distinct in being the only cider I have ever tasted.
I look forward to learning and tasting a lot more.
• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ross' choice"The Anvil" Bourbon Cider, Certified Organic
• Suggested retail and availability: About $9.99 for four, 12-ounce bottles at liquor chains and specialty grocers (distributed by Louis Glunz Beer, Inc., Lincolnwood)
This bourbon-flavored cider caused controversy among aficionados, but I -- a neophyte unbound by tradition -- 'just know what I like.' A healthy dose of barrel-proofed bourbon adds the warming comfort of brown spices to The Anvil's bright apple flavors, with layers of caramel and smoke opening with each sip. More complex than many ciders and richer (6 percent alcohol by volume), enjoy The Anvil on its own or with many veggie, poultry and even meat dishes.