That old-world tradition of having friendly, pre-dinner chitchat while sipping an aperitif to relax after the day is done might be at odds with today's hyperspeed lifestyles but one part of the equation is coming back: the beverage. Spurred by the craft cocktail movement in which yesteryear's ingredients are reinvented but made from scratch, lots better than ever, this wine-based infusion is reappearing via a few passionate producers like Laura Hagar-Rush of Sonoma Aperitif.
Her pale, pastel-colored concoctions brewed with various fruits, herbs and flowers are intensely aromatic, complex and exquisitely delicate, belying their 16% alcohol content. Featuring the haunting smells of ingredients like oroblanco, yali pear, Chinese quince, bergamot, blood orange and feijoa (pineapple guava), her essences are miles removed from the overly bitter and "it's-an-acquired-taste" commercial products like Campari and Fernet-Branca or syrupy mass-market stuff like Dubonnet.
A few budding aperitif producers have emerged recently like Jardesca while others such as Sonoma Portworks, Charbay, Sutton Cellars and Quady now have aperitifs in their product lines. But Hagar-Rush is the only one focused on seasonal heirloom fruit, grown in her expansive yard in rural Forestville and in the yards of friends and acquaintances throughout the Bay Area.
A writer and graphic designer by trade -- she used to write food and wine articles for the East Bay Express -- Hagar-Rush took the giant step from observing to doing after sipping a "transcendental" bergamot aperitif a friend made in his garage a few years ago. "It was really delicious so I went home and made one," explains the tall, immediately likable mom of two college-age kids, who's married to an industrial design engineer.
Aperitifs -- including familiar iterations like vermouth -- start with wine, which is infused with flavoring like herbs, fruit, roots and bark, allowed to percolate for awhile, then strained and dosed with a distilled product like vodka or brandy. Without the infusions, this is roughly how classic before-or-after-dinner "fortified" beverages like port, sherry and madeira are made. Varying amounts of sweetener are used in many aperitifs but those made by Hagar-Rush are just sweet enough.
Her singular inspiration was showcasing organic, local fruit. "It's a nice combination of the wine world and the whole local, sustainable produce movement, which I'm interested in," she explains. "This is going to sound a little woo-woo, but I like the idea of connecting people with the earth and the seasons and the cycle -- great food is only available certain times of the year. Like, cherries are only great for a month."
Current offerings reflect the winter citrus season and include blood orange, bergamot and Buddha's hand, a bizarre-looking fruit with yellow finger-like appendages that is so fragrant that it's used to perfume rooms in parts of Asia. "Coming up is Rangpur lime," explains Hagar-Rush. Soon will be the spring aperitifs, which will include cherimoya-jasmine.
In her ever-changing lineup are delicate summer offerings such as strawberry-basil and white nectarine-rose. Fall will see aperitifs like bosc pear and fig-pear. "I always have grapefruit," she notes, since "great organic fruit is available year round.
"They are generally less sweet than one expects," explains Hagar-Rush. "People generally say they're refreshing and bright, particularly with the citrus. The point with these is to deliver the essence of the seasonal fruit. All of them are extremely aromatic. The nose is intense and a huge part of the experience. They're perfumey, but in a good way."
The road to her current level of expertise involved three years of study and experimentation as well as jumping through the endless hoops of the officials who regulate alcoholic beverages. For example, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, nicknamed the TTB, wouldn't allow her to put "aperitif" on the label of her Sonoma Aperitif brand. Go figure. So she slyly came up with a substitute, "Qu'est-ce que c'est," which means "what is it?" in French.
Besides researching 18th and 19th century cookbooks, Hagar-Rush made a lot of samples, learning that Sonoma County's renowned chardonnay doesn't work nearly as well for the base wine as do varietals like sauvignon blanc. Also, "I did isolated samples of things like basil, rosemary, flowers, thyme," she explains. "I just infused that single thing to see what notes would be added."
She experimented with an array of fruit, too. "As the seasons went by, I took every interesting heirloom fruit that I could find and did test research. Some were horrible; cantaloupe was truly repulsive. Some were wonderful. And some were just meh."
Once she identified the winners, she began relentlessly searching for fruit sources, quizzing friends and acquaintances and putting requests on news groups and elsewhere online. One of her discoveries was a former UC Davis field station not too far from her house that was growing -- and mostly ignoring -- more than a dozen kinds of obscure citrus. She collected other exotica from friends' backyards as well as farmers' markets.
Launching her business also required a facility, which she found in the former Eagle Ridge Winery in Penngrove near Petaluma, which had earlier been a historic dairy and is now charmingly funky. A fortuitous aspect to leasing this property was the three-plus acres of old syrah vines, whose grapes Hagar-Rush vinifies and uses for her only red-wine-based product, nocino, an Italian-style green walnut aperitif featuring vanilla, nutmeg and other spices. She currently buys her base white wine -- sauvignon blanc and grenache blanc -- from a Sonoma County winery but plans to buy grapes and make it herself in the future.
Much hand labor is involved in producing her elixirs. The citrus -- which comprises a goodly portion of her offerings -- must be carefully peeled before infusion and since she has no staff, she brews her aperitifs in five-gallon jugs that are on the edge of being movable by one person. Her blends infuse for between a couple of days up to four months, she says. "As it develops, I taste it to see how the infusion is going and it actually changes quite significantly over time."
Her goal is to "try to find the highest development of the flavor arc" for each batch. Like the fruit that perfumes her essences, these aperitifs are somewhat ephemeral. Kept cold, her products are best consumed early. "I tell people to drink it within six months," says Hagar-Rush. No problem -- that creates an opportunity to try different elixirs throughout the year.
Sonoma Aperitif products have only been available for a few months now officially and their retail presence is just staring to grow. Despite this, visitors have been traipsing to her facility in the so-called Petaluma Gap for tastings, which Hagar-Rush particularly enjoys and which are getting high marks on social media. She also sometimes sells otherworldly preserves in her winery made from the same wonderful fruit sourced for her aperitifs.
"Since people are often not familiar with aperitifs, the tasting experience is really important," says Hagar-Rush. "It's my favorite thing; turning people on to something new." Visitors particularly like it when she mixes her essences with wine in the style of kir. "The stronger flavored ones, like the citrus and the raspberry-lavender that I do in summer, I mix with champagne. There's a trace of the berry in the nose while the bubbles release the lavender in a really interesting way," she notes.
Given the frequent unfamiliarity with European aperitifs among ordinary Americans, Hagar-Rush usually explains that they are great consumed either before a meal, in the continental style, or as a replacement for dessert wine after a meal. "Traditionally, they're paired with savory appetizers," she says, "and that's generally what I suggest people do. Crostini with goat cheese, olives, pistachios, that sort of thing."
Savvy visitors to Sonoma Aperitif might know that Berkeley's Chez Panisse has long been serving house-infused aperitifs as part of the downstairs weekend menu -- making this famous restaurant an early local proponent of the beverage. Some trendy cocktail programs in the Bay Area are beginning to include such alcoholic nectars, typically made in-house. There's been particular buzz around vermouth of late, with house-made or commercial high-end versions being used for more than the usual martinis and manhattans.
In fact, Hagar-Rush has been consulting for a Sonoma winery she won't name to produce vermouth to augment their product line. "We're going to try a couple of different styles and see which one we like," she reports. There's a lot of room for experimentation, since this aperitif appears in dry and sweet white-wine versions as well as in the classic red-wine version featured in manhattans and negronis.
Whatever the final product, carefully crafted aperitifs seem to be taking their place among other artisanal products being made in the Bay Area. Hagar-Rush views this as an opportunity for people "to try something new," she says. "It was like my response when I first tasted the bergamot (aperitif) my friend made: 'Wow, this is delicious. Why haven't I had this before?'"