An American cider pioneer is signaling final call. Diane Flynt, founder of Virginia's Foggy Ridge Cider, announced Nov. 9 that her current release will be her last.
"It's time to return to my roots," Flynt said in an email to her subscriber list, referring to growing apples, without the pressing business of producing and marketing cider.
Since releasing her first cider in 2005, Flynt has been a prominent advocate and ambassador for the craft cider movement, promoting the revival and use of traditional cider apple varieties common in colonial days but nearly forgotten in the modern marketplace. Foggy Ridge is now distributed in 15 states, but Flynt's acclaim is national; her work earned her a James Beard Award nomination this year as outstanding beverage professional.
Flynt, 64, and her husband, Chuck, 77, will continue to grow heirloom apple varieties on the farm they purchased in 1997 near Dugspur, in southwestern Virginia just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Earlier this year, she grafted about 50 trees over to a new variety for her, a red-fleshed apple called Redfield. They will join other traditional cider varieties such as Cox's Orange Pippin, Virginia Hewes Crab, Harrison, Graniwinkle and Roxbury Russet, among others.
"I hope to fall out of an apple tree when I'm 95," she quipped during a phone interview. "I feel I'm just beginning to understand how to grow cider apples here in the southern Appalachians. I learn something new in the orchard every day."
There should be a strong market for Flynt's apples: Foggy Ridge was Virginia's first modern cidery; today there are more than a dozen in the Old Dominion and several in North Carolina.
"Her impact on creating enthusiasm for Virginia cider as a category is immeasurable," says Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office.
The cider industry has exploded nationally. According to the U.S. Association of Cider Makers, there are approximately 800 cideries nationwide, double the number just three years ago. Sales topped $1.3 billion last year, almost five times the 2011 total. Industry insiders give Flynt a lot of credit for helping promote that growth.
"Diane has been a leader in arguing for heritage-style cider's rightful place at the tables of America's finest restaurants," Eleanor Léger, co-owner of Eden Specialty Ciders in Newport, Vt., founded in 2007, said in a statement.
The rise of Foggy Ridge and craft cider coincided with the farm-to-table restaurant movement, with chefs promoting local farmers and ingredients. Among Flynt's first customers were chefs John and Karen Urie Shields of Town House restaurant in Chilhowie, Va., and their sommelier, Charlie Berg.
"She was the first one to bring me the idea of using real cider apples and letting the ingredients shine," John Shields recalls. "Little did we know then what impact she would have. She was doing something no one was doing south of Boston."
A frequent diner at Town House was Sean Brock, the James Beard Award-winning chef at McCrady's and Husk restaurants in Charleston, S.C. Brock recalls first tasting Foggy Ridge there in 2009 and being attracted to Flynt's emphasis on achieving a local expression with traditional ingredients. "We would never dream of buying cider from anyone else as long as we can get a steady stream of hers," Brock told me from Greenville, S.C., where he will soon open a new location of Husk. His voice trailed off as he contemplated searching for another cider. "I turned two bottles of her dessert cider into vinegar. At least I will have those for a long time."
The Shieldses left southwest Virginia for Chicago, where they now operate Smyth, a Michelin two-star restaurant, and the Loyalist, a more casual bistro. At Smyth, they welcome guests to their prix fixe menus with a glass of Foggy Ridge sparkling cider, and they sometimes incorporate it into the menu.
Berg, the sommelier at Town House, took Foggy Ridge with him to New York, where he worked at Eleven Madison Park and later became head sommelier at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In an email, he praised Flynt for "an unwavering commitment to the pure, restrained, true expression of these amazing old apple trees and the land in which they are rooted," and predicted that "her refined, consistent and pure style of cider making . . . will one day be regarded as the classic bench mark for the revival of an age-old craft product."
As the cider market grew, two distinct styles emerged, which the cidermakers association calls "heritage" and "modern." Heritage cider is made with traditional cider varieties and, like wine, is produced once a year, within weeks of harvest. Modern cider is typically made with culinary apples, kept for months in cold storage until demand calls for another batch. And it is often flavored with other ingredients, which annoyed Flynt to her apple-purist core.
"They use hops, spices and hibiscus lime, for Pete's sake!" she chuffed. "You don't have to do that if you have good apples!"
Flynt senses victory, as sales of modern cider have declined over the past year, while retail and restaurant sales of heritage cider made by small local producers has increased. She sees a trend as the supply of traditional cider apples finally increases, and an opportunity for her to continue contributing through her work in the orchard. (It takes eight years for a new tree to produce a commercial crop.)
Foggy Ridge Final Call — made only with apples — is now on sale, through the cidery and in retail stores and restaurants. Diane and Chuck Flynt considered selling the brand, but they decided to end it on a high note.
"I just couldn't imagine Foggy Ridge being made by anyone else," Diane says. Neither could her fans.