Last August, I wrote a piece about tasting a slew of sensational ciders with Paul Scotto in a motel room in Corning, New York, and—wannabe stand-up comic that I am—I prefaced it like this:
‘If the most exciting thing that’s happened to you in a motel room this year has been tasting cider with Paul Scotto, welcome to my world…’
Rimshot, huh? Tish bang? Except that six months later, where did I end up, dateless, on Valentine’s Day? Tasting ciders with Paul Scotto in some restaurant in Danville, California.
Suddenly, this thing isn’t so funny anymore.
At least this time Paul brought along his wife, the incomparably lovely Whitney Colli Scotto, who began as a farm girl from Santa Maria who fell for Paul at first site—and vice versa. Now three children into it, she still manages to exude such wholesome farm-girl radiance that the old Arthur Fields song worried about keepin’ down on the farm is much ado about nothing: They’ll do just fine, Art.
Paul’s younger sister Bianca and his mother Gracie were doing tag-team babysitting that evening so that he and his wife could spend an intimate Valentine’s Day together—just them and me and a table-load of groupies eager to hear the Cider Brothers’ back story and tuck into incarnations of Red Dragon Ciders paired with cutting-edge California cuisine at The Growler Pub in Danville.
Speaking of ‘tuck’, a couple of words on that word should be sufficient: Paul Scotto’s other cider brand is ‘William Tell’, and he’s launching a campaign to explain the origin of the name—which refers to the legendary Swiss folk hero who shot an apple off his kid’s head. The campaign is called ‘Who The Hell Was William Tell?’ and as such, the whole marketing department thanks its stars that the dude’s name wasn’t ‘William Tuck’.
Anyway, Growler Pub’s executive chef is a self-described ‘beer girl’ named Rachel Zavala, and when called upon to become a cider girl when planning the Valentine’s Day menu, acquitted herself magnificently. She was kind enough to explain in culinary detail her food and cider pairing decision, and I’ll offer some Zavala sound bites related to each course:
“The straight, unflavored dry Red Dragon cider matched well with Asparagus Soup; the floral smoky quality cut through the Parmesan Custard.”
“Ale yeast was used in the cider/Pinot Grigio blend, and this gave it a nutty warmth and a creaminess that I thought went perfectly with Lardo-Wrapped Prawns with Grapefruit Chips and Hazelnut Gremolata.”
“Cherry Cider brought with it a complex, seafood-friendly quality that balanced the Lemon-Rosemary Stuffed Branzino and the dry vanilla notes went nicely with the Steak Diane.”
“Finally, the Strawberry cider completed the traditional Valentine’s Day duo of strawberries and chocolate, which is why I paired it with Flourless Chocolate Cake and Caramel Ice Cream.”
This was an interesting California Dreamin’ experience, and the fact that Chef Rachel announced before and after the meal that it was ‘gluten free’ and the fact that Red Dragon Cider also advertises that it is ‘gluten free’ initially struck me as the same sort of ironic joke that had me in a pub with strangers on Valentine’s Day two thousand miles from home.
Didn’t we all sort of collectively agree that gluten isn’t particularly bad for you unless you are among the 1% of the population with a wheat allergy? And isn’t beer, the bevvie upon which the Growler builds it fan base pretty gluten-dependent? As a boy from the grain belt, I was not aware that the anti-gluten movement was still alive and kicking on the Left Coast; I thought the idea that a gluten less lifestyle was healthier had been relegated to the Snopes-heap of busted fad diets.
I’d say, ‘Bring on the barley and pasta’ except that Chef Rachel’s menu was so spectacular that I didn’t miss a gram of gluten anywhere along the trail.
Paul Scotto’s cider may be California-friendly, but his raw material is not from California. He now bottles and cans so much of it that the Lodi apple orchards can’t possibly keep up. He now brings it in by the tanker load from Washington, 5500 gallons at a time.
It was not necessarily an operation intended to grow so quickly and exponentially: As Paul tells it, it was a mere three years ago that he began to play around with fresh apple juice, sensing that the U.S. market for fermented cider was about to do a post-Sideways Pinot Noir. In fact, he was right: Cider has represented one of the most WTF? sales trajectories in craft beverage history. There are as many explanations for that as there are cider buffs, and most of the analyses refer to cider as a gender-neutral beverage, a flavor-of-the-month for trendapoids, a heritage beverage that hearkens us back to our Colonial history. But they all can be consolidated into a single bullet point:
Hard cider is scrumptious—one of the easiest beverages ever concocted for a grownup to love.
Not everybody has instantly climbed aboard the apple cart, and an example involves a respected Napa winemaker whose name I will, with some struggle, avoid mentioning. He recently dissed a bottle of William Tell Cider (untasted) by likening it to 7-Up with a shot of vodka. I responded that it’s not particularly sweet, not particularly alcoholic and distinctly un-artificial tasting. Then I was forced to remind him that Scotto’s cider is not attempting to compete with the sort of $85 Napa Cabs he makes, and that a lot of $85 Napa Cabs—including a few of his—are severely overpriced.
Nobody can say that William Tell is a rip-off at $9 for 22 oz., at least, not with a straight face.
The final cider formula upon which Paul settled took a bit of time, but not as much as you might think: By the time he considered cider, he’d already cut his teeth as Scotto Family Cellar’s vintner, and, as he is the first to admit, cider is an easier beast to tackle.
Big bro Anthony takes credit for the original idea of having Paul craft ‘a refreshing drink lighter than beer, less potent than wine and reliant on a spritz of fizz to appeal to a coed crowd at, say, a weekend cookout’. If there was any downside of such a brainstorm, Anthony shrugs: “I’m not sure how many batches he tried, because I nearly burned out tasting the experiments. But in February, 2014, he nailed it. His ciders have the same subtleties and complexities as some of his award-winning wines, and at less than 7% ABV, this something you can drink all afternoon.”
Paul claims that from tanker to bottle he can produce this solid, nuanced, complex product in as little as 23 days, and his experiments now are merely detail adjustments—a yeast strain here, a new flavor there. That said, he is happy to share a few of the more monumental hiccups along his early learning curve, including a failure to account for the high pectin content in fresh apple juice. “We ran a filtration when the juice first came in, and it clogged the pad within thirty seconds. So we tried a larger pad. Same thing. After two more, I began to rethink the whole thing, but there I was with thousands of gallons of juice…”
I could walk you through the steps, outlining the transformation of apples to ambrosia, but I won’t. I pride myself on a certain ability to make dull subjects interesting but this technical silk-purse-out-of sow’s-ear even goes over my head.
Instead, I’ll talk Paul, the artisan Scotto. The approachable Scotto. The acute Scott—and although his friends tell me that Whitney is not the first young lady to have been smitten by him over the years, I said ‘acute’, not ‘cute’; I leave it to others to determine that.
He’s a popular Lodi bloke, though—for sure. Paul’s winery’s club membership tops 1400, so many that they had to halt members from bringing friends to a recent tasting, the better to serve those they have. Paul’s combination of Italian looks, burgeoning self-confidence and ease around a growing fan base have made him something of a local rock star.
A week after Valentine’s Day, his father and I went to visit him at Sera Fina, the Plymouth winery Paul owns and operates along, merely one of a laundry list of his Scotto Family Cellars and Cider Brothers chores.
During the ride, A2 lathered on some personal history, which will occupy its own chapter, and also some history of Sera Fina Cellars—the bailiwick of this one.
In 2007, Sera Fina began as a gleam in the old man’s eye, which was probably a gleam from one too many mid-day wine tastings; A2 was supposed to be home by 5:00 that afternoon so he could take his wife to a ‘Chicago’ concert and became totally lost in the Amador foothills. He began to lose his cool, and A2 does not like to lose his cool—it’s a sign of weakness. So he began to take down phone numbers of any property he passed with a ‘for sale’ sign in front, and later, he made a point to call each one to inquire about financing details. He didn’t necessarily intend to buy anything, but the idea of an afternoon wasted did not compute in the Scotto worldview, so he made the most of his FUBAR. Without a follow-up call, the number-taking would have been a waste of time. And not wasting time is the way that A2 rolls—even while directionally challenged.
However, it turned out that one of the properties—the twelfth of twelve on the list as it happened—was an ideal site for a winery. Ideal frontage, perfect exposure, knock-out view. A2 had struck gold in Amador County, home of the Kennedy Mine, once the deepest gold mine in the world.
Plymouth, CA, the site’s zip code address and known variously throughout the years as Puckerville, Pokerville,and Poker Camp, is also in the middle of Zinfandel country, and love it or hate it, the umbilical cord between nearby Sutter Creek and Sutter’s Home White Zinfandel is proof positive.
At the time, Paul Scotto was doing remarkably well selling heavy equipment for Sacramento-based Vermeer, living off commissions that before the economic downturn of 2008 were quite commendable. But, he’d served his hard time in the UC Davis enology program, and he had long dreamed of opening a winery. For the time being, the Vermeer job was too good to quit; at least until the time his customers began to have an increasingly difficult time financing big ticket purchases.
And the gold in them there hills proved to be the gleam in the old man’s eye: The site of Sera Fina Cellars.
The ground around here actually is sort of gold, but the geology books claim it’s ‘consolidated rhyolitic tuffaceous sediments’, which I don’t have to Google to assume is not what they make best-selling records out of. There are also bright fields of iron-rich red clay, and others littered with massive boulders that are disconcertingly green. They’re made of green basaltic rock, fittingly called greenstone, but Zinfandel—the varietal most associated with the appellation–prefers red granite soil.
Zinfandel was never going to be focus of Sera Fina, and Paul Scotto is as like to vinify it under its Puglian alias Primitivo—the Italian name for the varietal. The theme of Sera Fina, besides subliminal, Big Brother admonishments to ‘relax’ (on t-shirts, on signs in the tasting room, on web site verbiage; it’s the mission statement) is Paul’s Italian heritage. ‘Sera fina’ means ‘beautiful evening’, his wine club is called ‘La Famiglia’ and he makes Barbera and Pinot Grigio and Malvasia Bianco, and out behind the tasting room, there’s a sight to warm the heart of the most jaded goombah: A bocce court.
This is the sort of tasting room that should add a neon sign beneath ‘relax’ saying, ‘There are only two kinds of people in the world—Italians and people that wish they were Italian.’
Or maybe that’s better reserved for Al the Wop’s, the strange little tavern in strange little Locke that also occupies its own chapter.
Of course, as a lover of Rhône varietals, Paul’s grab bag wine list includes a nice selection of Viognier, Syrah and a dry Rosé made from the classic GSM blend, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, and with all these fantastic vinous innovations, what does Paul bring out for me to taste? More cider. This one is mango, the latest in a string of experiments he is running in tandem with California Concentrate; it’s a bright and refreshing fruity drink—something you might sneak in the privacy of your own home, not something you’d order in a biker bar like Al the Wop’s.
Flavored cider is like flavored anything; a niche reserved for the somewhat faint of heart. It’s like bubblegum pop—we may all harbor a secret craving for it, but most of us would not ‘fess up to it in society—polite or otherwise.
Unless it was at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition Public Tasting. If I had no other accolades to heap upon Paul and Michael Scotto’s line of artisan ciders, it was the public’s reaction to their William Tell Hard Cider with Strawberry, winner of their category’s ‘Best of Class’.
I volunteered to pour at the tasting dressed in my Scotto Family Cellars hat, Scotto Family Cellars t-shirt, Scotto Family Cellars cotton zip-front jacket, looking like a NASCAR driver plugging his sponsors or Roger Daltrey on the cover of The Who Sells Out. Frankly, I don’t feel bound by any sense of journalistic ethic that prevents me from supporting the folks who are putting me up in downtown Lodi; this book is an editorial, not an exposé.
That’s why I don’t mind sharing my personal reaction to the shiny happy joggers and bikers and roller-bladers gliding along the northern waterfront between Aquatic Park and the Marina Green; buff, tan, thin and model-gorgeous beautiful people enjoying a balmy 70° Saturday afternoon. Everybody here seems to assume that just because I am from the winter-ravaged Midwest, where (as the joke goes) the lauded four seasons are almost winter, winter, still winter and the 4th of July, that I must love California in February, where the skies are blue and the temperatures tame.
In fact, there is something profoundly disturbing to me (and my innate sense of up and down) when I see people sunbathing in the middle of winter. It upsets the equilibrium; it’s like Australians celebrating Halloween in the spring and Christmas in the summer.
What in the world are all these San Franciscans so happy about—did they forget that everything sucks? As a Detroiter beamed down into the middle of Happy Town, I felt like one of those feral children raised by wolves who becomes somebody’s civilizing project. Within a couple of hours I was pining for the jungle and the raw meat of the Motor City.
At least the thousands of people in attendance at the Chronicle tasting had an excuse for their grins and simpers: Artificial stimulants. This is the largest public tasting of the largest competition of American wines in the world and it’s held inside what looks like a blimp hangar and patrons paying upwards of a hundred dollars a ticket can sample the best of the six thousand entries from 28 states that competed in this year’s competition.
An endless string booths were set up, where pogues like me—or luminaries like Jim Caudill of Hess Collection—strutted their stuff.
I’ve poured at these sort of events in the past and I know the score—after tasting a hundred or so wines, many of which are high-octane, punch-in-the-head reds or tart, bone-dry whites, your palate feels like Rocky Balboa’s face looked after 15 rounds with Apollo Creed. So, my little table with its bottles of clean, pure, effervescent apple cider was balm in Gilead, a cool shower after a year-long drought. It was positioned to prosper, poised to prevail. But, as I said, having covered these sorts of events in the past, I can state without equivocation that I have never known an individual product with such mass appeal or that could garner such universal ‘wows’ as Scotto’s cider. In five pouring hours, I did not record a single thumbs down from anybody, man or woman, hipster or oldster, and this included people who claimed they didn’t like hard cider and people who had never heard of the Cider Brothers.
To me, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is the tallest soap box from which the Cider Brothers could advertise—not in script but in sips. If I pontificate, therefore, it’s from sanguine loft of experience.
And anyway, who needs Al the Wop when you’ve got Paul the Wop and Guido Gold in Amador County?