Wassailing in wine country
On Old Twelfth Night, we wassail. If you had asked me 10 years ago what the heck that means, I’d have guessed something about singing a Christmas carol in a Shakespearean play. But since we embarked on our adventures in Ciderland, the ancient English rite of blessing the apples trees to ensure a good harvest for cider has taken on almost mystical significance. Maybe because it’s steeped in pagan ritual—with its incantations and burning torches and raucous noise to ward off evil spirits, transporting us to a time when the natural world seemed to seethe with supernatural forces, before science and logic carved it into orderly, rational bits. Or perhaps because it encourages bacchanalian revelry—with cider-tipsy costumed celebrants traipsing in old orchards, singing off-key and slinging the wassail bowl—because who doesn’t need a good time in the depths of winter? But I think wassail is especially poignant because, thanks to sheer tenacity and a leap of faith, we still have orchards to wassail.
If you don’t know anything about wassail, and I wouldn’t be surprised if so, wassail comes from the Old English phrase waes hael (“be well”) and is a traditional celebration held on either Twelfth Night (January 5 in the Gregorian calendar) or Old Twelfth Night (January 17 in the Julian calendar), or anytime in between. Throngs of costumed farmers would descend upon their dormant apple orchards, banging on pots, dancing, singing and reciting incantations, carrying torches and lighting bonfires, drinking cider and passing around a wassail bowl, and carrying out an elaborate spectacle to scare off the evil spirits in the hopes of securing an abundant crop in the fall. Kind of like Burning Man set in a craggy, sleepy orchard rather than a dry Nevada lakebed. The British photographer and author Bill Bradshaw has vividly captured English wassails, and the cider folklorist Maria Kennedy has written beautifully about the wassail experience and its sociological meanings, so I encourage you to check out their work. American cidermakers, cider lovers, and orchardists are beginning to embrace wassail, and it’s becoming a bit of a thing these days.
Since planting our cider orchard, we’ve held our own wassails, though admittedly on a much smaller scale than I’ve wanted. I always envision a big fete, with me garbed as the Cider Queen, and our son putting the cider-soaked toast in our oldest tree for the robins, with revelers whooping it up, warmed by a bonfire. But the closest we’ve come to such a bash was in 2012, when our noise making spooked the flock of a dozen sheep sleeping nearby, who tore through the electric fencing and scattered all over our pasture in the dark of night. Mayhem! I just have never had enough oomph after harvest and the holidays to organize a large wassail, and besides, Scott would be worried the entire time about people inadvertently crushing his baby trees underfoot. Little sticks in the ground are hard enough to avoid in full daylight.
So Saturday, we’ll be celebrating wassail the same way we did last year: with a little blessing at our farm, followed by a big party at the orchard of one of our local apple growers, who’s become a good friend. His story reminds me that what we’re doing has a positive ripple effect. We are helping to save local orchards. We are giving apple growers hope.
I should qualify that. We are helping to save a few orchards. We are giving a few apple growers hope. Yesterday, about a half-mile from our farm, I passed by yet another old apple orchard being leveled to make way for a Chardonnay vineyard. We’ve been mulching our young cider orchard with the shredded trees from an old orchard that last year was bulldozed with shocking efficiency, and immediately planted to winegrapes. Another local orchard was recently swept up to make room for a new winery. This is our reality. On our scale, with our meager funds, we cannot work miracles.
But there are glimmers of hope. There is renewed interest in preserving our agricultural heritage and diversity thanks to the work of Slow Food Russian River, Sonoma County Farm Trails, and Sonoma County GoLocal Cooperative, among others. The media is covering local apples and cider in a positive light. Some newcomers are buying orchards and, rather than plowing them under, actually keeping them intact with plans to expand, asking us what varieties we need. A couple of farmers and cidermakers are planting new orchards specifically for cider. Local growers, who initially scoffed at our mere mention of cider apples, have seen that this cider thing is taking off, and that four years later, we are still in business. It’s still an economic risk—What if cider is just a fad? they may ask—but they’ve witnessed the staying power of fine wine and craft beer in our area. They know cider could be a lasting success as well, if we cidermakers do our jobs right.
The grower we’ll be wassailing with, his orchard is in the Green Valley AVA, among the most prestigious growing areas for winegrapes in California. He could convert it to vineyard and command 10 times the price of fruit per tonnage in a heartbeat. He has resisted, both out of a respect for heritage and an abiding love of apples, but it has been tough to do so. The economics of apple growing are appalling around here. We’ve been working with him for a couple of years, and now he has gone all-in, completely committed to apples, excited and energized, organizing wassail, getting serious about making his passion a reality.
I am not so arrogant and sanctimonious as to believe we can take credit for all of these positive steps. But I do feel like we have made at least some meaningful contributions to the sustainability of the local apple culture. It’s humbling to realize that pursuing your crazy dream can sometimes help others pursue theirs as well. When we wassail on Saturday night, I’ll be honoring the interdependence of our community and our cider. I’ll raise the wassail bowl in a toast to our growers and to our fellow apple lovers, to their dedication and their hard work. I’ll sing at the top of my lungs to scare off the bulldozers: “Here's to thee, old apple tree! You’re not going to be plowed under if we can help it!”
Tilted Shed co-owner, cider evangelist & shameless rabble rouser!