Sign up for our Newsletter

Winemaker Juan Micieli-Martinez is aging cider in oak barrels at Riverhead Ciderhouse. (Credit: Nicholas Grasso)

For the past year, Riverhead Ciderhouse has kept a secret in its fermentation room: longtime winemaker Juan Micieli-Martinez.

No, he did not grow sick and tired of the North Fork’s premier beverage and seek a change. In fact, the 46-year-old Riverhead resident, who served as Martha Clara’s winemaker from 2007 until it was sold in 2018, still works at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck as vice president of business development and winemaker and has his own wine label called Montauk Daisy.

But he’s held a fondness for cider for many years, so when he caught wind of an opening at Riverhead Ciderhouse, he decided to take on the new challenge.

“I talked with them and said, ‘I haven’t done this before,’ ” he recalled. “But I’ve been making wine for over 20 years. I’ve also brewed commercially, I was the assistant brewer at the Southampton Publick House … so I kind of figured, with my understanding of fermentation, that I should be able to figure out cider.”

Now, Micieli-Martinez is ready to fuse his longtime winemaking skills and techniques with his new apple-based adventure. He is currently crafting a cider sur lie-style, a winemaking process by which wine is aged on the spent yeast leftover from fermentation. He said guests can expect to taste this new creation in the fall.

“You’re going to get hints of some toastiness, a little bit of richness and creaminess on the palate because it was aged sur lie,” he said of the new concoction. “You’re going to get a little hint of vanilla, a little bit of nuttiness and other oak-type flavors as well.”

As the weather cools, the cider maker will also unveil a trio of pie ciders: blueberry, cherry and pumpkin. It’s more whimsical beverages such as these that represent perhaps the greatest difference between Micieli-Martinez’s long-time career and his new one.

“That’s one of the things that I really like about cider, is that for the most part, not only is there artistic expression, but people that are into cider are more open-minded,” he said. “Wine people are so definitive about what it must be, where cider, it’s more of just a free expression.”

While Micieli-Martinez’s affinity for wine dates back to his time at Binghamton University, his affinity for cider dates back only a decade ago, after a trip to England for the London Wine Fair. Whilst in a pub, he saw scores of patrons order the beverage.

“When in Rome, right?” he said. “So I tasted a cider there, and that was kind of my ‘aha’ moment for cider, where it was like, ‘so this is what everybody’s talking about.’ ”

When he first took up the craft at Riverhead Ciderhouse, Micieli-Martinez said he needed to both crack the code of the fermentation process, as well as grow comfortable enough to express himself through his new medium.

“For instance, last year, when I made a strawberry [cider], it was a clear cider that had the strawberry flavors, and I just wasn’t happy with that,” he explained. “I want people to be able to just look at the cider or and have some sense of ‘oh, yeah, that’s the strawberry,’ or ‘that’s the peanut butter and jelly’ visually.”

To pull this off, Micieli-Martinez started co-fermenting his cider with other fruit concentrates. But the most important quality of a great flavored cider, he explained, is to balance any additional flavors with the base cider qualities to not overwhelm the drinker.

“I just don’t want things to be over the top,” he said. “I don’t like when things hit you over the head … I like suggestions of things because at the end of the day, it’s still cider. I don’t want it to be like a peanut butter and jelly flavored drink, it’s peanut butter and jelly cider … it’s just the suggestion of these flavors and aromas.”