John Keller and Andrew Middleton are the minds and makers behind La Boîte, a new winery in Mount Healthy that crafts natural wines and alcoholic ciders with minimal intervention — they leave the juice well enough alone to ferment at its own innate pace, using only natural yeasts found on the fruit itself.
“We’re just babysitting while nature takes over,” Keller says. “This is the way wine was made before modern science 80 years ago. We’re going back to traditional methods.”
Natural wine is seen by some as a reaction to current mass-production wineries that often utilize an arsenal of chemicals to assure the highest yield and a consistent end product. As a result of the industrialization of winemaking, the uniqueness of the region and fruit variety is homogenized and sacrificed for the sake of shelf life and steady marketability. Natural wines and ciders embrace the strange places a beverage can transport its sippers, revealing the quirks and depth of a particular region or fruit.
For naturally minded winemakers producing on a smaller scale, finding the right place from which to source ingredients is obviously a high priority. La Boîte will soon premiere three apple ciders made from fruit harvested at Salatin’s Orchard in Moores Hill, Ind.
“Well, it started rough. They thought we were prank calling them the first time, asking for 20 bushels,” Middleton says — a bushel is approximately 45 pounds. Luckily, they weren’t fooling anyone.
“Salatin’s is not an organic orchard, but they don’t spray,” Middleton says. “It was so hard to find apples we could afford, but we found someone doing it right... The relationship with Salatin’s is awesome; we’ve been back twice.”
Keller and Middleton bought multiple types of apples including Black Twig, McIntosh, Macoun, Ozark Gold, Red Delicious and Yellow Delicious. By diversifying the kinds of apples used in a cider, they can achieve unique blends that explore the nuances of the fruit.
“If we were to write an ingredients label on our cider, it would just read ‘apples,’ ” Keller says. “We don’t add yeast, it’s already on the apples. We don’t add sugar, alcohol is produced from whatever is in the apples. That’s the coolest thing to me. It’s like a study of life in a bottle — and you get a buzz off it.
“That’s why I fell in love with wine: I don’t have to cook it or raise the temperature. If you just crushed apples and put it into this (bottle), it would eventually turn into alcohol.”
“Or vinegar, if you’re not careful,” adds Middleton.
Two of La Boîte’s initial ciders are sparkling, made in the Pétillant Naturel style (shortened to Pét-Nat), which means the beverage is bottled prior to full fermentation so it continues to ferment inside the vessel, resulting in a natural fizziness. The third is a sour, non-carbonated cider. All of the drinks are unfiltered.
The apples are blended in certain proportions for each of the varieties. When the fruit is juiced and crushed, the resulting liquid is dark brown because of oxidation, but the end product is a gorgeous, clear golden amber thanks to the work of wild yeast.
There are methods of clarifying drinks that utilize a kind of clay called bentonite, something used by many modern winemakers and brewers to achieve a uniform aesthetic, but La Boîte claims it kills the drink’s personality. There is a bit of sediment in each bottle as a result of their natural production process, but its presence is negligible.
“Yeasts are magic: they took all the oxygen out and clarified it,” Keller says.
While most of the talk has been about ciders, La Boîte also offers wine. At present they have a tank of sauvignon blanc and a tank of pinot noir, created with grapes sourced from vineyards along the Columbia River in Washington State. Soon they’ll be ready to share another Pét-Nat blend of the two wines, but it still needs time. Patience is the unspoken universal ingredient in winemaking.
Middleton and Keller met while working at Over-the-Rhine restaurant Pleasantry, where Middleton cooked and Keller served. Pleasantry — a high class winer-diner brunch destination run by Daniel Souder, Joanna Kirkendall and chef Evan Hartman — values natural wines and farm-to-table food. It was there, through the restaurant’s celebration of the natural world, that the duo decided to work together in creating drinks that reflect this heightened mentality concerning not only the end product, but also the spirit of production.
Keller studied bio-chemistry in college with an initial interest in doctoring, but after a few classes on fermentation and beer and wine making in Western culture, he took on an internship with a small winery in Columbus, Ohio and another in California, which, as he described, “did everything the exact opposite of how we’re doing it here.” He allows that many big production wineries are under a lot of pressure to maintain consistent product, even while selling a million cases each year, so there is a need for those methods in the economy.
La Boîte is starting small, producing around 660 bottles their first year. Of the three ciders, the unnamed sparkling cider is a pleasantly fruit-forward drink that will be accessible to cider fans, while “Juice Box” is a more nuanced, barnyard funky kind of cider that wine lovers will appreciate for its depth. “Sucker Punch,” the still cider, is sour and congenially challenging, but something to explore and enjoy for its transportive element.
Translated to “the box” in french, La Boîte’s winery is located in an old gas station near the outskirts of La Boiteaux Woods — no relation. Keller and Middleton weren’t even aware of the coincidence.
“Maybe it was subconscious,” Keller says.
“The Box” just perfectly worked to describe their workplace.
The two have talked with local restaurants and shops about carrying and serving their wine and cider, but nothing has officially been announced.
“Worst case scenario,” Middleton says, “we can just drink it.”
Some might argue that’s the best case.
Keller and Middleton are, however, hosting a tasting on March 22 at Pleasantry with sales by the glass and bottle. The winemakers hope the tasting will include all three cider products and two Pét-Nat wines, plus food pairings.
To keep up with La Boite and its availability, follow @LaBoiteWine on Instagram.