A vegetarian restaurant with a cider bar on New York’s Lower East Side? With a cider sommelier? Every time I try and describe Manhattan’s Wassail, I feel like I’m devising a punchline for a New York hipster riposte to Portlandia.
And yet, for all its improbability, Wassail has become not just one of the more exciting restaurants to appear over the past year, but also perhaps the clearest indicator that, in America, cider is finally having its moment.
At first glance, Wassail’s cider director (yes, we have those now), Dan Pucci, might come off as merely an overly excited sommelier, going on about mineral notes or the “amazing expression of terroir” in South Hill Cider’s foraged-apple bottlings, all delivered faster than a monster-truck announcer. But somehow, amid Pucci’s bubbling, shuffling enthusiasm, what could be a deluge of jargon takes on a certain sort of clarity. You walk out having grown, osmotically, one step closer to being a cider geek.
Like many wine lovers, I’ve also loved cider for a very long time, usually in the modest way that let me file it as a pleasant drink for a hot summer day in California or a cold fall day in Normandy. But it really has been evident that cider is in the midst of a transformation, not much different from the one craft beer enjoyed perhaps a decade ago. It’s not just the explosion of small cider producers, but also the twists on classic styles—like the fresh-hopped cider from Finnriver on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula—and the fact that beer giants and craft-giant hybrids have jumpstarted the category (Stella Artois with Cidre and Boston Beer Co. with Angry Orchard, to name two).
But to push beyond a niche audience, drinks need evangelists. Robert Mondavi became a figurehead for American wine culture less for his wines than for the gestalt he advanced: that wine should be a part of life at the table. I won’t say that Pucci is poised to be the great exemplar of cider; there are spectacular cider-makers on both coasts whose work is worth attention on its own. But it’s worth watching what Pucci does, because he has located a path to move cider from the sidelines into the core of a serious conversation about how we drink—a move I’d argue he’s been able to make because he came to his love of cider from a love of wine.
Although, arguably, you could say he came to wine from cider. Pucci grew up near Delhi, N.Y., in the Catskills, a place where cider was ambient to the culture. His parents had 30 apple trees on their property, and for years made their own sweet cider. It wasn’t uncommon for neighbors to have a barrel of cider aging on the porch, occasionally bumping up the alcohol content (apples have far less of it than grapes) with raisins or molasses. In high school, he got a job at a local wine store, and learned more about wine in college while studying abroad in Hungary. When he eventually moved to New York City, he worked at Eataly selling wine, before moving on to Otto.
“I was getting disenchanted with Italian wine,” he tells me one day. “[Cider] was something new, and no one had done it before,” by which he means treating it, in a restaurant context, like wine.
Wine often trades on its faint exoticism—you drink wine from Gigondas or Santorini and you’re supposedly transported—while cider exudes a sort of comfort in its near-ness. It comes, increasingly, from upstate New York or Vermont or the Berkshires. “It’s like, oh, my aunt lives there,” as Pucci puts it.
If wine comes with its mountain of insecurities—do you really want to order that barbera?—right now there’s no penalty for knowing nothing about cider. It’s not unsettling to sit at Wassail and receive one of Pucci’s brain dumps (“There’s no phylloxera with apples!”) because, well, who the hell knows enough about cider to say what any of this is about? Perhaps that’s why, according to Pucci, Wassail’s servers say they talk more to customers than in any other restaurant where they’ve worked.
Cider also enjoys a certain populism partly because it’s such an intrinsically American tradition, going back to the days of Johnny Appleseed, whose apple trees—it has since been noted by Michael Pollan and many others—were meant for cider, not eating. That tale at the heart of American botany was, in effect, a matter of spreading cider joy, which might be why, if you flip through agricultural annuals of the mid-1800s, there is often more talk of pomology, the study of apples and related fruit, than of grapes. There’s an implicit patriotism to it that resonates well in our modern locavore echo chamber. Cider is indigenous.
Which is to say that wine often trades on its faint exoticism—you drink wine from Gigondas or Santorini and you’re supposedly transported—while cider exudes a sort of comfort in its near-ness. It comes, increasingly, from upstate New York or Vermont or the Berkshires. “It’s like, oh, my aunt lives there,” as Pucci puts it. Sometimes it’s not even that far. Wayside, in the Catskills, is hoping to produce an “urban cider,” entirely from fruit within New York City, while Descendant Cider Co. set up shop in Queens as New York’s first “urban cidery.”
While Europe certainly has its own emerging cider stars, like Switzerland’s Cidrerie du Vulcain, it’s arguably being held back in making the same kind of progress because it is already bound up in its longstanding cider traditions, much as its wine industry was in 1976, when America whomped it in the Judgment of Paris. None of that is to dismiss excellent ciders from Normandy or the Basque country or even Germany, but even Pucci acknowledges that right now we’re ahead of the Europeans—and there is the opportunity to define a modern, homegrown cider culture.
In fact, America’s cider industry has begun to develop its own cult figures, people like Andy Brennan and Polly Giragosian of Aaron Burr, who have succeeded (in a modest way) in getting $30 per 500ml bottle of their very specific ciders, which often come down to one variety from one very specific place. (Their 2014 Malus Baccata, for instance, comes from mostly wild crabapples discovered between three towns upstate and goes for for around $130 per 500ml bottle.)
But there’s another crucial element that stands to give cider an easier adoption curve than wine ever had: “People understand apples,” Pucci says. Or at least they don’t have the same prejudices they do with grapes: “People don’t come in and say, ‘I don’t like Northern Spy,’ the way they would say, ‘I don’t like chardonnay.’”
However, I’d argue cider is enjoying its current moment at least partly because of what has happened in wine—namely, the explosion of appellations and tastes and styles. The old rules are gone, in which case: Why not ferment cider on its skins, an echo of one of today’s fashionable techniques in winemaking?
There is something about the detail and cadence of wine talk that suits cider, too. It’s Pucci’s recognition of this, for me, that makes him such an essential figure. He revels in the comparison between the thousands of varieties of apples (many not meant for cider) and the cacophony of flavors and varieties in Italian wine, or the similarities in fermenting either beverage in the bottle, applying his boundless energy to all of it. One afternoon, he begins talking excitedly about a runty apple discovered upstate—full of acid and tannin and somehow tasting of strawberries. He leaps up, and scurries to the basement to grab a sample. I take a bite. It is exactly as he has described.
Pucci also compares the current state of cider to where California wine was in 1915: growing but not quite ready for specifics like appellations. It’s true that cider isn’t quite at a point of being treated the way we treat wine today, and there is a legitimate worry that all the wine-like geekery could come across the wrong way. Apply it to cider, and you run the risk of falling down the Williamsburg-Portland-Oakland rabbit hole. There’s also the question of whether Americans are ready to pay $75 for a bottle of cider, or to be handed a cider list at the table.
Wine pulls off such things—although not always with success—because wine has established rules and parameters that imply value. We talk about terroir and specificity and vintage, and a million other things to help explain why one batch of fermented grape juice, handled just so, is worth much more than another. Too many winemakers abuse the notion of relative scarcity, but we understand it, at least in concept, and that’s why wine works. Why, then, shouldn’t cider follow in its path, or at least something similar?
If on one hand, Pucci sounds a bit wonky talking about “single-tree bottlings,” on the other, it’s no weirder than pining for single-cask whiskies or unicorn wines. It’s a matter of fine-tuning our drinking predilections, and to that end, Pucci is making a bold point: There’s no reason apples shouldn’t earn the same respect as grapes.