It’s a misty morning in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Rain dances on the tin roof of a 1940s barn at Appalachian Ridge Artisan Hard Cider. Owner Alan Ward gives us a tour of the historic space he’s turned into a tasting room.
“In this barn, every piece of wood you see was cut off of this property,” he explains. “These big doors, these are the original doors on the barn. We’re really proud that we were able to keep this intact.”
Alan Ward’s winery, Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards, greets you as you drive up the country lane, but if you go a little farther, you’ll find acres of apple orchards and a tasting room with several varieties of artisan cider.
In the coming months, he’ll start producing an apple brandy that’s similar to French calvados, and an alcoholic drink called pommeau that’s made by mixing apple juice with apple brandy. This is the company’s first foray into spirits and higher alcohol beverages.
“Pommeau is really something new to the area,” he says. “That’s 30 percent first cut calvados. We can’t use the term calvados because Calvados is a region like champagne as a region, so we’ll be calvados-like.”
These spirits are new to Henderson County, but the region has been known for its apples for hundreds of years. Henderson County grows 65 percent of all apples in North Carolina, and North Carolina is the 7th largest apple-producing state in the nation. Apple farmers have been part of Henderson County’s culture since the mid-1700s, and Ward, who grew up on the land that is now the winery, aims to carry on that heritage.
“Our family has farmed this land for nine generations and before that we came from Virginia, so we respect tradition,” he says. “There’s an old saying that you go shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations in a business, and that’s because I think that the past generations don’t know what it took to get to where you are today and they need to innovate, just like their great grandparents and grandparents did.”
Ward brings that spirit of innovation back home with him as part of his frequent visits to the Normandy and Burgundy regions of France. He travels there to gain knowledge, and also to bring back varieties of apple trees that he’s not able to find here.
He steps outside to point at the hillsides dotted with young trees. “That’s where we’re going to plant the French apple trees from this little nursery as well as the trees that we have ordered from France. The trees we ordered from France are probably about two inches in diameter and they’ll produce some apples this fall but not much. So it’ll be about another year before we get a reasonable amount of apples off of what we have,” he says.
With a successful winery down the road, and a cidery that’s up and running, why does Ward keep pushing himself to expand?
“We want people to understand that we can grow world-class fruit and make world-class wines and we feel that we can do the same with the pommeau and the brandy here because we’re really starting out trying to learn from people who have been doing this for centuries to where we can bring another product to this county, into this region, to the state that is profitable, that makes sense, that helps agriculture,” he says. “We don’t import our apples and we don’t import our alcohol. Everything we serve is grown here, fermented here, and distilled here.”
Learn about other apple orchards in Western North Carolina, and hear more stories about family farms in our audio archives at www.asapconnections.org