Albemarle Ciderworks is a close-knit family operation. That’s no more clear than when I emerge from the office on the gently mountainous North Garden property after a conversation with brother and sister Chuck and Charlotte Shelton (which goes nearly two hours and draws to a close on a couple cups of the brut and bright Ragged Mountain Cider that Chuck pulled out from the back room), and there sit Mom and Dad Shelton, nearer to the century mark than many of us, taking in the western sun on the flagstone deck that fronts the cidery’s nearly finished tasting room. When Chuck, Charlotte and I met, the Sheltons—a total of four siblings, Dad and a grandson—were facing a busy week ahead as they close in on the cidery’s grand opening on July 13. There’s plenty of pomp to come, what with Governor Kaine expected for the party, but the experience of running a fruit-based enterprise on the 130-acre property is familiar to them. They bought the place about 20 years ago to prepare for their parents’ retirement, and within a few years of that they were selling 250 varieties of rare apples under the name Vintage Virginia Apples. They eventually started hosting pruning, grafting and fruit-growing workshops at the orchard, too.
It’s a family affair: Ciderist Chuck Shelton, right, aided by son Rob, pictured, as well as Chuck’s three siblings and parents, aim to reintroduce hard cider to the American food and drink tradition.
But this will be a major leap forward. “An early notion we had about the cidery,” says Charlotte, “is that it was one way to rationalize all these apples.”
Hard cider, though still a standard choice in Europe and England, is hardly known any longer in this country since its Colonial heyday. Cideries are scant, and in fact, says ciderist Chuck Shelton, there is only one other in Virginia. So, the Sheltons are taking on not only the making and bottling of 865 cases this year (with a goal of perhaps 3,000 annually), but the education of the apple-juice-drinking public who might mistakenly think they’re already consuming something called cider.
Now take note, Virginia wine lovers: Local eminences such as Michael Shaps, Gabriele Rausse, Andrew Hodson, Sarah Gorman and Claude Thibaut have already scanned the scene—or more, in some cases, giving advice on equipment and operations.
Naturally, the ghost of TJ hovers over the cidery, too. A Champagne-like cider is credited to the third prez, and he is quoted that “Malt liquors & cider are my table drinks.”
What exactly is cider? It’s not the fruity, sweet drink that’s usually set out with pumpkins in a Fall supermarket display. It’s a fermented drink made from a wide assortment of apples—most of which we might call crab apples and which are n.g. for dessert consumption. These are apples that balance acidity and tannins with sugar. Hard cider usually comes in at 7 percent alcohol and it’s meant to be downed with food. Indeed, when the Sheltons and I were chatting in the office, I mentioned more than once that nothing would be finer than a ham sandwich with my beverage. Albemarle Ciderworks will produce three varieties of increasing dryness: Ragged Mountain, Jupiter’s Legacy, and Royal Pippin.
The Sheltons, who after our talk seemed to me as grounded and clear a team as I’ve met, are cautious but hopeful about taking their cider to market. “It may be a learned taste for people,” Chuck says, “but so is beer.”
Tasting room hours, which begin July 15, will be Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm.