LYNDONVILLE Given a normal year's weather, LynOaken Farms would expect to harvest about 200,000 bushels of apples from its 265 acres of orchards near Lake Ontario.
After a spring that froze early budding blossoms and the arid summer that challenged watering systems, "we're hoping we'll get to 40 percent of a crop," said Christopher Oakes, head apple grower.
As he spoke, his farm van passed rows of grape vines, planted a decade ago to diversify the farm's fortunes against such a season. Today the family's Leonard Oakes Estates Winery sells 22 kinds of wine.
Diversity is the modern farmer's watchword. "This year, if you were all into apples, you're not going to do well, because we got frozen out real bad," Oakes said. "So now that we have another revenue stream, it spreads out the damage. It spreads the risk."
Amid the worst apple year in memory, another LynOaken diversity effort is bearing fruit.
Steampunk Cider, a brainchild of Christopher's brother Jonathan, is drawing critical and commercial attention in a time when craft cider is starting to catch the eyes and palates of consumers nationwide, much as craft beer did in the last decade.
The name is meant to evoke a blending of traditional products and modern methods, said Jonathan Oakes, chief winemaker at Leonard Oakes.
"Cider was the key beverage at the turn of the Industrial Revolution," said Oakes. "We're taking our wealth of knowledge in terms of fermentation science that has expanded in the past 100 years just exploded and applying it to a very heritage-driven thing."
What Steampunk delivers is a sophisticated expression of the finest that local apple orchards have to offer. For about $10 per 750-milliliter bottle, drinkers can enjoy a bubbly amber sipper that starts with luscious, aromatic apple sweetness before ending on dry, tannic notes, not unlike red wine's bite. It's 7 percent alcohol, and complex enough to serve as an able foil for ambitious food apple cider for adults.
Before its release last September, Steampunk already had won a double gold at the 2011 New York Wine & Food Classic, "like the Oscars of the New York food industry," said Wendy Oakes Wilson, president of the Oakes winery and the brothers' aunt.
Since then, Leonard Oakes has sold about 1,200 cases, making it the winery's best-selling product.
"It's trending hard," Oakes said. "It's self-promoting, because a lot of people that like it have actually gotten us into their retail outlets."
Besides local liquor and wine outlets, Steampunk has caught the attention of local chefs. Carmelo Raimondi, chef-owner of Carmelo's in Lewiston, said the cider pairs well with oysters, cured meats, or "even a caramelized onion and Gorgonzola dolce pizza."
"This time, or anytime of the year, we would use it as a braising liquid, in a cocktail or just on its own," Raimondi said. "Order the (housemade) charcuterie and cheese board with a glass of Steampunk Cider, you won't be disappointed."
Oakes, who trained in winemaking at Ontario's Niagara College and worked at Vineland Estates Winery, has been in charge of his family's winemaking. Under his direction, Leonard Oakes produces Rieslings, ice wine, Chardonnay, Cabernet and wines across the spectrum. The Leonard Oakes tasting room, 10609 Ridge Road, Medina, is a regular stop on Niagara Wine Trail tasting tours.
>A touch of England
Oakes has been working on his cider for 10 years, including taking cider making classes at Cornell University and producing "probably 100 different" trial batches. Paradoxically, the roots of Steampunk's success as a proudly local beverage can be traced across the Atlantic, to England.
The key was using traditional English apple varieties that contribute tannins and acidic flavors, adding needed complexity to the cider blend, Oakes said. About 2.5 acres of 11 English varieties were planted at LynOaken, including varieties like Brown Snout, Medaille d'Or, Chisel Jersey, Binet Rouge, Harry Masters, Major and Ellis Bitter. Spring grafting should add another 1.5 acres.
In 2008, he produced a cider using the traditional methode champenoise procedures employed for champagne, including double fermentation. "Too much work," and the cider market wasn't ready for it, Oakes says now.
He eventually settled on a cider that's about two-thirds blended English varieties, and a third "dessert apple" Fuji with a touch of Braeburn.
Under the watchful eye of cider chief Jerod Thurber and his crew, the LynOaken cider mill can crush and squeeze about 400 bushels of apples an hour. Sweet cider is flash pasteurized and bottled for immediate retail sale.
The English juice is left unpasteurized. An enzyme is added that helps break down pectin and release aromatics in the final product, as well as helping clarify the juice, Oakes said. The bottle is carbonated with carbon dioxide when it's bottled. Oakes said they hope to produce 2,000 cases from this harvest, despite the season.
What's next for Steampunk Cider? "For me the big issue is how to keep reinventing, keep topical, keep ahead of the trend, be progressive, in a way," said Oakes. He has a dry-hopped cider in the works, using the same kind of hops beermakers do. He's considering what it would take to grow the hops in Lyndonville.
Another local flavor he's considering is quince. The super-tart apple relative is aromatic and astringent, and might make a terrific blend. The area was once home to the largest quince farm in America, Oakes said, and he can get quince from an orchard down the road.
"We're creating something handcrafted," he said. "We're paying close attention. We're trying to do things as high quality as possible. We're using the right apple mix, from our own apples, not bulk juice from God knows where."
Another diversity project overseen by Christopher Oakes should be ready for customers next fall: a U-pick heritage apple grove.
LynOaken has assembled a collection of more than 300 varieties of apples that consumers haven't seen in generations, Oakes said. "We're going full circle on the heritage-driven aspect," said Jonathan Oakes. "It's tangible. Grandpa can bring the grandson out, taste an apple, and say: This is how it tasted when I was a boy.'?"
>The cider house
Leonard Oakes Estate Winery, 10609 Ridge Road (Route 104), Medina, stocks in its tasting room tasting room Steampunk Cider, wines, and more. (585-318-4418. oakeswinery.com)
Steampunk Cider is available at local wine and liquor outlets, including Premier Liquor, Georgetown Square Wine and the Wine Room in Williamsville, Gates Circle, and other locations.