Hilltop Orchards transforms in spring

From the top of the hill here, the mountains show on the horizon in receding waves, and in the high meadow the trees stretch away in long rows against the sky. They are all in bloom. The blossoms are just opening this afternoon at Hilltop Orchards in Richmond. White petals tipped with deep pink uncurl around creamy sepals. After weeks of late spring rain, the clouds are parting and streaming away, and the sun is breaking through.

“People think apple orchards only open seasonally,” said Sarah Martell, looking out over the trees she tends with her husband, David. People think of apples in late summer and early fall, when the fruit is ripe. But they are always open.

Visitors are welcome to walk the trails up the hill and through the woods, or pick up a cider doughnut, or taste the first of the season’s cider. They are tapping now that it has aged through the winter.
And they hope to begin wine tastings again soon, David said. They are looking toward Memorial Day weekend, if and when the state and the pandemic allow.

They grow 17 acres of apples here, 27 kinds from common to heirloom, and pear trees. David has planted many of them himself, Sarah said. His father and grandfather worked here, he said, and he remembers coming here as a boy.

He came to work here some 13 years ago, and he has grown into taking the lead in caring for 186 acres (more than a square quarter-mile) on this 115-year-old farm.

The Vittori family owns the land. John and Wendy Vittori, brother and sister, were living in Boston when they bought the place 35 years ago, Sarah said. They also own the Gables Inn in Lenox. John Vittori and his wife, Julia, moved here when they took over the cidery, and he traveled to England to learn cider-making.

He created the original recipe for their first cider, Johnny Mash, named in a cheerful homage to John Wayne, and she sees his influence in the character on the label, hoisting a wooden cider keg on a powerful shoulder.

The mash blends Northern Spy and Macintosh apples, David said, one sweet and one dry. Northern Spy are heirlooms emerging from New York State about 200 years ago. And then Hilltop does something few cider houses do — they age their cider in oak barrels.

Since then, Hilltop has expanded with three kinds of ciders and a growing list of wines. They bring in grapes from Long Island and California, David explained, for their own Merlot and Cabernet, Pinot noir and Chiraz, Pinot Grigio, Moscato and Chardonnay. This spring they are working on a strawberry rosé.

25 years ago, John Vittori retired to New Bedford, and David stayed on here to run the orchard. Sarah was a social worker then, working out in Denver, Colo. She had known David in high school here, she said, just across the border in Chatham, N.Y. they reconnected on social media, and on a visit to town she came to the farm to lend a hand … and fell in love.

Ten years ago, Sarah and David moved here to the renovated historic cider house below the orchard that is their home.

She has seen guests since then from all over the world, from the Czech Republic to Montana, as the creative scene has grown here, with music and museums and theaters. In Richmond the orchard lies just over the ridge from Lenox, near Tanglewood and Shakespeare & Company and the Mount, and the Mass Audubon trails at Pleasant Valley Sanctuary. It sits near the meeting of Routes 41 and 295, with Hancock Shaker Village to the north and the Foundry, Turn Park, the Norman Rockwell Museum, Berkshire Botanical Garden and Chesterwood to the south.

People come in for wine and cider tastings and the farm store with maple syrup and Currency Coffee. They walk the trails, and in the winter they come to snowshoe or cross-country ski and warm up between the bar and the fireplace. In warmer weather, sip a glass of wine and enjoy the view.

“People can picnic and hike,” David said, “or sit by the fire and use our wi-fi. If they’re working from home, they can come in and relax.”

They have kept the trails open in the pandemic, and they have been expanding in covid in new ways. He will deliver door to door within 15 or 20 miles and often farther, he explained, as he worked behind the scenes with gleaming new machinery.

He has two new workers on his team in the last year, Benjamin Wibby and Reed Boisvert, and during the pandemic they have started bottling for other companies, he said, as they filled tall, slim cans of a Champé sparkling wine. The Vittori family has invested in a Procarb Mini, the device Coca Cola uses for pinpoint carbonation, so he and the crew can work with microbatches of cider, keeping it fresh from the tree to the press to the fermentation tanks.

“We’re one of the largest cider mills in New England,” he said.

They press cider for local farms including Yonder Farm in New York and Paradise in Williamstown, and with local cideries to make sweet cider that they ferment. They are working with the Berkshire Cider Project in North Adams, he said, and they are talking with local cideries about bottling and a coffee roastery about their cold brew.

On a warm evening, a family walking through the trees can find more than one cold drink to bring up to the picnic table at dusk and listen to the quiet sounds of crickets or tree swallows or the leaves stirring in the summer dusk.

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