The year is 1880. The location is Wrangletown, California, modern-day Freshwater. A pair of strong-willed frontier women are doing what they are known best for: Fighting in the middle of the street. Fast-forward 135 years, and another strong-willed Wrangletown resident, not known for fighting in the streets (to this author’s knowledge), is founding the Wrangletown Cider Company.
After spending the past 15 years as a winemaker in the Napa Valley, Freshwater native Patricia Knittel is returning to Humboldt County and transferring her skills to the cider business. “It seems like there’s an interest,” she says, and indeed, there has been a strong renewed interest in hard cider, both nationally and locally. Knittel will open her new tasting room this July in the old Arcata Recycling Center building, between the thrift store and Holly Yashi. Holly Yashi is renovating the space, with plans for a restaurant and outdoor music venue. It’s all part of the revitalization of the Creamery District into an art and commerce neighborhood. “It’s a great opportunity,” says Knittel. “Things just kind of opened up for me a little bit.”
After graduating from high school locally, Knittel left for the Bay Area, where she studied voice training at San Francisco State. After working in banking for 10 years (“to pay the bills”), Knittel discovered her passion for winemaking. “I just said, ‘I want to do this’,” she says. Knittel started out as a cellar hand in 2000, eventually working her way up to winemaker. She studied winemaking at UC Davis and Napa Valley College, and worked for established wineries like Silverado Vineyards and Ravenswood Winery. She also traveled to New Zealand every year for the harvest season at Villa Maria Winery. “To work physically, I love that,” she says.
Eventually, Knittel made her way up to winemaker and lab manager at Etudes Wines in Napa, renowned for its Pinot Noir, and later at Miura Vineyards in Santa Rosa. It was at Miura that Knittel learned from Master Sommolier Byron Kosuge. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the best growers in California,” she says.
Knittel says her time spent in the wine cellar has helped her learn the cider business. “You’re really babysitting them,” she says of the cider apples. “It’s really akin to making white wine.” She is also taking advantage of the abundance of underutilized apples in the area, especially the “spitters” that are used in cider. Knittel said she is working with several local orchard owners already, and has plans to continue to expand those relationships. She is even planting some trees of her own at her Freshwater property. “I’d like to bring on more varietals,” she says.
Knittel is getting into the cider business at the right time. At previous CiderCons, the professional trade conference for cider makers, Knittel said there may have been 60 people. At this year’s conference in Chicago, there were 600. “The industry is really taking off,” she says. In all, everything just feels right, including her move back to Humboldt. “It’s amazing,” she says of the support she has gotten. “I feel very optimistic around here.” She also has been impressed by the strong local entrepreneurial spirit. “I think this place is special in that,” she says.
Now, after 20 years in the Bay Area, in the high-stress banking world and in the cellars of some of California’s most prestigious wineries, Knittel is slowing things down. A little bit. Humboldt County residents are real; there are no airs. “This is something to just enjoy,” she says.