The Terroir Next Door: Floral Terranes

11/13/22

One of the most exciting domestic projects is happening right in our backyard, at FLORAL TERRANES: hyper-local (foraged!) cider and wine made by Erik Longabardi (a teacher for children on the spectrum) and Benford Lepley (a photography retoucher).

From their garage-turned-winery, we caught up with Erik and Ben this weekend while they put a three-week macerated Merlot to press.

Together, they are restoring local traditions of all-things-fermented; and in the process, restoring the perception of what is possible east of Brooklyn.

What was your entry point into cider/winemaking?

Erik: For me, it was fermentation. I started fermenting ginger beer and kombucha and things of that nature, then I started playing around with apples, and then wine. It was the interest in fermentation at first, and still–always is. 

Benford: Similar for me. I initially learned about fermentation through Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation; so I was making a lot of like, wild fermented sodas via his ginger beer recipe, and I was living in a dry county at the time–so to obtain alcohol, my friends and I figured out that we could just knock on people’s doors and pick pears. Made perry. And my interest in cider grew, I ended up working with Aaron Burr’s cidery and moved to upstate NY to work with him.

So you went into this with some experience.

Benford: We’ve learned a lot through experience; between the two of us we have almost 20 years of fermentation experience, and we’re lucky to work with really good fruit. Compensating for bad material–we don’t have to do all of that, so we can work really simply in terms of technique. For the cider fruit, the learning has been more like, how do we manage to check all these places, maintain these relationships, what order are we going to have to pick stuff in…those logistics, nobody really taught us that. All the nuanced things, a lot of that is stuff you just pick up on the fly and build over time.

What did you originally set out to do here? Was this just a personal project, or was it always about making something consumer-facing?

Benford: my impression is that–you were just compelled to do it, and there wasn’t really a plan… 

Erik: I was interested in plants, gardening…

Benford: You were interested enough to get a license and get this started. 

Erik: Floral terranes in my mind isn’t for everybody, it just can’t be. We both work full time and have family, kids–it’s a lot of work. To do it on an even larger scale just doesn't make sense; I like how we have to think about this, and be structured, and organized and work incrementally–we make baby steps every year with this project, small steps that we hope make the wines and ciders better.

Benford: The scale we’re at for working in this space–there is a sweet spot in the relationship between producing in a small space, being as close as we are to the city, working with a distributor; and the realities of that trifecta, is so influential for what we’re able to do. We’re at that edge where if we moved out of this garage, it would put us into a completely different ecosystem. The way it is now, we can be lean, and especially with the ciders we make–you can’t exponentially grow with that. There’s a finite amount of that fruit.

Erik: It would challenge the actual goal of this; it’s really important that there’s some holistic element to this.

Benford: Our goal is to stay this scale but get more and more efficient in how we work and how we build our equipment up to match that. So we can source fruit for grapes that we really like and work with it in a way that it’s not breaking our bodies or spirits.

Right–there’s no cider this year. And that was driven by the weather?

Benford: It's a combination of things. But apple trees that aren’t maintained will give you a more significant crop every other year. And the combination of last year being a huge apple year–people refer to it as a mast year–that means the trees this year are not as prime to put on blossoms. There actually was a good bloom on Long Island but we had a nor'easter right in the middle of it in May, and whatever made it through that was just wiped out by the drought after that.

So back to cider next year?

If all goes well, yeah. 

Erik: I miss picking fruit at Restoration Farm this year and the seminary, and all of the different spaces [we pick in].

Restoration Farm! I need to get over there.

Erik: They’re farming in a way that is pretty righteous; we don’t have too many outlets for agriculture in Nassau County, especially in the way that they’re doing it, which is high quality - that’s why we support them and do their CSA. You want to enforce that because if you’re not taking part with your neighbors…everyone needs help. Making sure they get that recognition. It’s a win-win situation.

Benford: [laughs] Yeah for the NYT article, I was trying to drop everyone we care about–get everybody in!

Erik: We used to have this–in terms of agriculture–long ago, and everyone says “I used to” or “There used to be this place down the street” and well, it’s not there anymore.

People now don’t generally think of Long Island as being about history, and agriculture.

Benford: That’s all such recent history, too, it’s interesting…I have a friend who grew up in Bellmore, in the 1950s, there was a cow pasture in front of her house - I can’t picture that. Long Island ecosystems are extraordinarily special, it’s a very unique place in terms of the landscape–it’s a shame to see a lot of that get lost behind big box stores.

Erik: Coming here felt like an opportunity, because so many people were moving upstate, or around the city–and it was like, there wasn't really anyone doing anything here. I felt that it was hard to be here, but also felt that there was opportunity. You could build something out of nothing here. Things that are untapped around here, that I found even more so working with Benford…things that were not being used to their fullest extent, places forgotten in time. The gold rush went upstate, I didn't picture myself doing that.

There’s authenticity to be found here, that you maybe won’t walk down the street and see in an obvious way.

Erik: There is a likemindedness–it exists, but you have to get in your car and search for it. I feel like I have more of a voice out here; I mean that in a way that’s humbly said, but there’s an opportunity for us to talk about this place because we grew up here, we have mixed feelings about it, we decided to move back here. I feel really good about this place. I’m glad that I'm back here and I get to share it with my own family.

Benford: People’s perceptions of Long Island–everybody has a story, and it’s just stories. And the reality on the ground is never actually these snap judgments that people have. There are all these exceptions to the rules. Make what you want of it.

All of the apples are foraged?

Benford: We do purchase some fruit–but most is foraged. Uncared-for trees that were intentionally there at some point, and now we’re working with the owners to put it back to use. We'll check in with people, there are some sites we’ll prune so we’re there in the winter. If possible, we’ll call them up and ask, do you see fruit on the ground? How is it tasting? But other times we’ll take a whole day to drive to 5-6 different places. One of the worst experiences is fruit just disappearing all of a sudden. If you’re not having your eyes on stuff, it disappears; sometimes a big storm comes through and blows all the fruit down, and it gets eaten by deer. 

Like with Ida last year?

Benford: Ida dropped 9 inches of rain out here, and there were apples dropping in the first week of September that should only be getting ripe in mid-october. So we picked what we could…it was such a big apple year, very quickly the garage filled up with fruit. Both of us were really skeptical because it was so underripe, but it turned out to be one of our favorite ciders. We let it sit and ripen as long as we could, about 2 weeks. Early apples tend not to store well, and these were straight up premature fruit. The seeds here hadn’t even developed yet.

How did Ida (the cider) turn out?

Benford: I find it pleasantly tart and salty, we did put some pears in there, which added some body. It has nice weight and structure to it. It makes me think of salty herbs, like if you walked by some mugwort growing by the ocean; it picked up on more of those savory tart apple characteristics.

Apples vs. grapes…do you think they are more similar or more different than people would guess?

Erik: Apples fit more into the native ecology here, more so than the grapes.

Benford: I think it’s nuanced in the sense that if you have access to either well-grown apples for the purpose of cider-making, your experience in making that cider will be more similar to how it is making wine with grapes that were grown for winemaking. With the grapes it’s so simple with how we approach it - the stuff wants to be made into wine and that’s its purpose in life. A lot of the apples we work with, that‘s not their purpose - so it’s actually pretty difficult. We’re not working necessarily with varieties that are particularly great for cider from a chemistry standpoint, and they’re also uncared-for trees.

Erik: I always found making a good cider, especially a still cider, to be really hard. Still cider ages really well, but there is so much carbonated cider out there.

Benford: A lot of people think cider means it has bubbles.

Erik: And there is an amount of bubbles I like, like when you taste a champagne, I might want to get rid of the bubbles sometimes so I can actually taste it. That’s how I feel about still cider, I want you to be able to taste the essence of the cider. Eric Ripert always talks about, let the fish do what the fish is going to do, let it be the star of the plate; and I think in terms of that with the cider.

Benford: Sometimes with pet-nat style ciders, all I smell is fermentation. I would love to make sparkling ciders but I think it’s hard to do well. The still ciders are so fitting for what we do. If we tried to make them sparkling, it would ruin the essence. Something else that goes hand in hand with making still cider, is that you need to embrace fully completed malo fermentations.

How does malo impact cider? Same as wine?

Benford: It can bring cider to a place where it has more body and richness; I feel like it’s one way where ciders can become fully realized if they can finish that whole process out. I’m sure it depends on the fruit that you’re using. In grapes you have tartaric and malic acid, and in apples you really just have malic acid; and I think people have this fear that if malo goes through and you let things stabilize on their own accord, you’ll end up with something flabby. But I think they can find more balance and elegance with that process and still have balanced acidity. Growing culture plays a role in this. We work with pretty much unfertilized trees, so there’s not always enough nutrients to completely eat all the malic acid. And good cider fruit is going to come with lower nutrient soils, lower nitrogen; and this links to a more accurate depiction of the terroir. 

On that note… the name, Floral Terranes.

Erik: I really was about thinking about Long Island as a terrain, as a land mass, and trying to tell the story about Long Island through the wines. We’ve talked about doing things from other places, too. But the original impetus of it was to do it here, because there’s this whole untapped story. We’re so close to the NYC metro area, it’s so alien to people but we’re really not that far away. I can’t stress enough how we have such a great agricultural history here. Commercialization of grapes started in Long Island in the 1970s, but prior to that there were a lot of grapes in the area. Chasselas was growing in Brooklyn. It’s been here a long time, but people are just discovering it again.

Benford: I feel like everywhere, there is something that can be delicious and true to the land. And here, cider is very applicable to that.

The original American ferment. And the labels?

[Erik and his wife Julie design all of Floral Terranes' labels]

Erik: It’s really about what feels right–the feelings of color, how I felt when I was there–I think about feelings in terms of colors and how I can put those down on paper to represent it.

If you find yourself at Wild World on Monday, Erik and Benford will be there: “We hope our joy about it is infectious.”