Holmberg Orchards - Apples & Pears, Cider & Wine

New England Wine Gazette - Fall 2008


Holmberg Orchards in Gayles Ferry, Connecticut

It’s a cloud-swept early September day in eastern Connecticut. A red tailed hawk wafts lazily over endless rows of fruit trees uphill from the barns at Holmberg Orchards. Apple and pear trees are overloaded with fruits ranging in color from light gold to ruby red. It looks to have been a good year. It’s warm, but there’s a brisk and welcoming breeze flowing through the orchard. There’s the barely noticeable soft din of traffic westwards over and towards the Mohegan Sun complex. The hotel tower glints silver.

Russell Holmberg emerges from a barn at the bottom of the orchard. His overalls, and hands are stained purple with juice.  He and his father Richard have been preparing blueberries to make blueberry wine.

Russell gave me a brief history of Holmberg Orchards.

Chickens, Hurricanes, and Diversification

Russell Holmberg - my great-grandfather started the farm at the turn of the last century. It began as a vegetable farm and became a fruit farm in 1935 when my grandfather and his brother purchased the farm from his grandmother. They said that they got sick of bending over so they raised chickens and grew apples. As soon as they could survive on the apple crop they got rid of the chickens and turned the chicken coops into cold storage areas.

The orchard was planted in 1935 that, if you study local history, was not an opportune time because the hurricane of 1936 basically wiped out the orchard.

Bob Chaplin - Have recent hurricanes damaged the orchard?

RH - We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve not had a hurricane since Bob in the early 90’s.  Our top two swear words here on the farm are ‘hurricane’ and ‘hail’!

The farm had about 50 acres of fruit, primarily apples. My grandfather and his brother ran it until the 1950’s when my grandfather took over. My father has degrees in horticulture and education from UCCON and he started the diversification process at the farm extending it from apples peaches and pears to fall vegetables and small fruits like raspberries and blueberries. I received a degree in horticulture in 2004 and I’ve continued the diversification process with flora-culture and more small vegetable crops.

BC. - You are mainly a pick your own farm – is the farm store the only other outlet?

RH - When my father started that was a big shift in the farms dynamics. We were 95% wholesale and now we are 95% retail. We managed to make that transition successfully. We do have a few wholesale clients.

From Cider to Wine

BC. Are your wine and cider projects recent developments?

RH - When I was at UCONN I befriended an organic chemistry professor. Jim Bobbit. My mother also studied with him. My mother mentioned to me that he had a small vineyard in Mansfield and suggested I look him up. I worked in his lab and he taught me about winemaking.  When I finished school I thought, well we don’t have grapes, but we do have apples. I started to talk to some folks in England, and I thought we could easily start making cider. We started in 2006, and realized that we would have to become a winery in order to make cider. It afforded us many more rights and privileges than we anticipated. One bonus was that we could make pear, apple and blueberry wines. Since we started making wines we have won many accolades with them and we are now looking at making peach and blackcurrant fruit wines. But cider still represents the bulk of what we do as far as fermented products go.

BC. You obviously use apples that you grow here, but doesn’t traditional cider use unusual varieties, that quite frankly do not taste particularly good?

RH - We try to make a cider as best we can in the English tradition of cider making which relies heavily on having dedicated fruit used for cider making.  In colonial times when all these Brits came over and settled down they sort of modified cider making to fit their needs. In America hard cider has the reputation of using low quality fruit. I found out quickly that you cannot make good cider out of bad quality fruit. And we’ve always grown Russet apples that are the backbone of traditional cider. The English would classify it as a bittersweet fruit. It’s heavy in tannins with good acidity. It’s a meaty apple. In England it’s recognized as a cider apple but with culinary benefits. Here it is primarily a cooking or baking apple and we use it in our wine too. The Russet is an ugly looking thing. But it makes a wonderful pie and stores very well.  It has acidity, tannin and sugar content – three things you are looking for in cider or wine making.

Our house hard cider, we call it draught style cider to differentiate it from the American barrel style cider that’s typically found in southern New England is a blend of several different varieties of apples. I also make small batch fermentations using each individual variety and some make outstanding ciders unto themselves. The first real breakout was Cortland. The Russet came next. We’ve just released a cider made from a late picked Macintosh. It’s high in aromatics and sweet like the Cortland but not as effervescent. Our customers really enjoy trying the different versions.

BC - You started by making cider, and now you are making wine?

RH - Cider is an expression of the alcoholic potential of the fruit. Grapes are about twice a sweet as apples and will produce a wine that’s around 11-12% alcohol. Apples will produce around 7%. So the first year out we decided to keep back a couple hundred gallons of cider to make into wine and we added sugar to the fermentation. Larry Ames at Nashoba Valley in Massachusetts advised us and he said you would add more value to your product if you make wine. The difficulty with cider is that the lower alcohol makes it a tough pricing point. He advised us to treat it as though you are making Chardonnay and put it in oak barrels for a couple of months. We use one or two year old French wine barrels. We try to use a similar blend of apples each year.

We are having fun with it and we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback. We entered our apple wine, “Three Sheets,” into a few competitions and amongst several accolades we won Double Gold at the 2008 International Eastern Wine Competition and Best in Category and Best Fruit Wine. We were tickled pink by that and it’s now outpacing the cider. “Pearfection” our pear wine won a Bronze at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, while our Russet Hard Cider won a Silver medal at the same competition.

Bottling Pears

BC – You’ve been putting pears in bottles for Westford Hill Distillers pear brandy, “Poire Prisonniere”. How did you get involved with them?

RH - It’s fun story. When I was studying at UCONN, which is a stones throw from Westford Hill my college room mate had grand ambitions on being a whisky connoisseur with little or no money and little or no knowledge about whiskey. I was explaining to him that when whisky comes out of a still it is clear and that is the aging in barrels that gives the whiskey the color. He wasn’t getting it.  I heard that there was a distillery around the vicinity, and they must give tours.  So I googled Westford Hill and I emailed Margaret Chatey and asked if she did tours. She said that they were a closed door operation, but she recognized my family name and invited us up to show us what she was doing.

We met up with her one Tuesday afternoon - I think I skipped class to go up there – don’t tell my parents! We walked into the backdoor of the distillery – it was about this time of year and they had just bought the pears in the bottle for processing. So I said, “oh, pears in bottles, I can do that!” Her eyes opened wide and I said that in my research into cider and wine making I had come across the tradition of growing pears in bottles.  She explained that they had not had that much success. When I graduated I called her up and asked her whether she was serious about the idea.  She gave me a couple of hundred bottles. I started on a Friday afternoon planning it for the weekend knowing I would be laughed at, which was exactly what happened that afternoon. But as my father said every body laughs until the checks comes in! It turned out exceptionally well. The first year we produced 120 to 150 and were successful with about 70% success rate, and she pays handily for my time. We had a few glitches about purchasing the specially shaped glass bottles, but that seems to have resolved itself.

Pest and Disease Control

BC – Wandering about the farm I wonder how you control pests and diseases?

RH - It’s interesting, birds don’t eat the apples and pears or raspberries. The only time we see birds in the orchard is when it is really dry and they peck the peaches for moisture. Blueberries on the other hand they love and those we have to net.

Deer were a problem. In the wintertime they eat the buds so we have a deer fence.

To control pests and diseases we work heavily with the University of Connecticut. We have at least one on-site visit by a specialist in pest control during the growing season. We will go into the orchard and evaluate the situation as to where our pests and diseases are decide if we need to spray

BC - So rather than blanket spray you selectively spray.

RH Yes, my grand father back in the 1960’s would calendar spray. Now we use integrated pest management based on scouting the orchard because it’s expensive to blanket spray.

Promoting Local Wines

BC. - In your roadside store, Holmberg Orchards Farm Market on Route 12, you sell your own wines and ciders. But I noticed you also sell wines by other producers. That’s good to see

RH. - In 2004 when we were investigating the licensing procedure to make wine we had to become a winery at the State and Federal level we discovered that there was a clause saying that a farm winery can sell wine produced on their farm, or any other farm winery in the state. We thought this was great.

BC. I wonder why other wineries don’t take advantage of this?

RH. - The only think I can think of is that every winery has for instance, a Chardonnay, so they don’t need other versions. But for us it is a wonderful opportunity. People coming in the store now have the option of buying a variety of excellent wines produced in the state. The first wineries we approached were a bit unsure, but it’s worked out well. The wineries had no idea that we would be selling their wines that well. We now sell Sharpe Hill, Chamard, Stonington Vineyards, Taylor Brooke winery, Jonathan Edwards, and we’ve just brought in a new local vineyard called Maugle Sierra Vineyards.