I first met Mikey Giugni two years ago, late one night in a Paso Robles hotel room, where he came to show off his brand-new hard ciders. I’ve appreciated cider since college, though back then it was mainly because we could guzzle it quickly before moving onto our 40-ounce malt liquors. I’d also thought I was on top of the recent craft resurgence of this fermented apple juice, which has roots in America’s Johnny Appleseed history.
But when I sipped Giugni’s bracingly dry and springtime crisp Scar of the Sea ciders that evening, a brand-new beverage world opened before my eyes. Lighter than lager, complex like fine wine, and refreshing like soda water, these bottlings filled a hole in my palate that I didn’t know was there.
Since then, over everything from waitress-botched bottles of 1994 syrah to midnight bubbly sessions at the Bacara to pét-nat chardonnay paired with ramen downtown, Giugni and his business partner, Michael Brughelli, have kept me abreast of their latest cider experiments and discoveries, not to mention sharing the excellent wine bottlings of chardonnay and pinot noir that they do under the same label.
“The goal with Scar of the Sea is vintage, single-origin ciders,” said Giugni. “We’ve determined that site really does play a huge role in cider, and all sites are not created equal.”
Raised in Rancho Cucamonga, Giugni studied environmental engineering at Cal Poly but enjoyed his girlfriend’s viticulture classes more, and he was soon working harvest at Kenneth Volk Vineyards, where his boss was Brughelli. “He hooked me up,” said Giugni, who graduated in 2011. “He gave me a lot more roles than I necessarily should have had, but I worked hard and just grinded.”
Next came making sparkling wine in Tasmania, where the winemakers drank crisp, dry cider more than beer, the typical American winemaker’s choice. “It started opening my eyes to fermenting other things,” said Giugni. “It was an epiphany moment for me.”
Upon his return to the States in 2012, Giugni and Brughelli (who is now director of grape sales for Bien Nacido Vineyard) started Scar of the Sea with cider. “I got 80 gallons at the spur of the moment,” said Guigni, who now gets asked all the time how he learned to make it. “I just did it. I just fermented it and figured it out. I just made it like a sparkling white wine.” He started scouring the California landscape for sources of heirloom cider apple varieties like Arkansas blacks, Newtown pippin, and golden russets, which are all higher in acid, more mealy, and nowhere as tasty as the dessert apples we buy in grocery stores like Red Delicious and Granny Smith. “They tend to look like golf balls,” said Giugni.
His quick-study cider skills led to partnerships with Casa Dumetz winemaker Sonja Magdevski, with whom he co-ferments cider with grenache blanc, sémillon, and other wines as well as pineapple guava, blood orange, and various hops and yeasts for a brand called Clementine Carter. And along with Field Recordings winemaker Andrew Jones and Sans Liege winemaker Curt Schalchlin, Giugni created Tin City Cider as a soon-to-open pub in Paso Robles serving small-batch ciders on tap as well as tall-boy cans for distribution.
Meanwhile, Giugni and Brughelli built their wine brand, using chardonnay and pinot noir grapes from Bien Nacido and Sierra Madre in the Santa Maria Valley as well as from vineyards in the Chalone region of the eastern Salinas Valley in Monterey. (There’s some Santa Cruz Mountains syrah coming soon, too.) “First and foremost, our wines are made to be drank — we want them to be as delicious as possible,” said Giugni, who also recently released a sparkling pét-nat chardonnay. “But we believe in the vineyard, so all of our wines come from the best possible vineyard sites that we can source. The best wines come from the best vineyards. That’s an age-old philosophy that’s true today.”
Yet few are taking that philosophy into the cider world quite like Scar of the Sea, which is now sourcing most of its apples from an 80-year-old orchard in Aptos, south of Santa Cruz, whose fruit was once all purchased for sweet sparkling cider by Martinelli’s. “We’re using the oldest California trees we can find,” said Giugni, though that sometimes means quite a bit of rehab is required. “California apples have gone through a roller coaster over the last 100 years. So for the last 30 years, this orchard hasn’t gotten the attention it needed.” With the right care, though, Giugni hopes to use this as his sole source of apples in the years to come.
“We’re never gonna make a lot of cider, but we’re always gonna make the best cider we can,” he said. “It’s fun and special to pull out and show off. It’s a unique beverage that doesn’t just smell or taste like apples. It has a bunch of nuances, like white wine.”
Santa Barbara Vintners Spring Weekend: Special events all weekend, but grand tasting with more than 100 wineries, tons of food, and lots of entertainment is Saturday, April 23, 1-4 p.m., at River View Park in Buellton. See sbvintnersweekend.com.
Central Coast Cider Festival: First-ever showcase of ciders is Saturday, May 7, 5-8:30 p.m., at the Atascadero Pavilion on the Lake. See centralcoastciderfestival.com.