To decide what cultivars to use, Charles McGonegal evaluates each year’s regional apple harvest. “I see what’s ‘nifty,’ what speaks to me,” he said. He runs AeppelTreow with his wife, Melissa.
Photo courtesy of AeppelTreow Winery & Distillery

by Gail March Yerke

Sometimes simply the name of a business can set the tone. For example, the words “AeppelTreow” are Anglo-Saxon,of Old English origin and translating to “Apple True.”It’s no wonder that AeppelTreow Winery and Distillery sources unique heirloom apples for its heritage hard ciders. Owned and operated by spouses Charles and Melissa McGonegal, the Midwest winery and distillery specializes in hard ciders, wines and spirits.

Greeting visitors at Brighton Woods Orchard of Burlington, WI, is a historic white barn with a classic gambrel roof equipped with solar panels. The contrast between old and new is striking. It is there the McGonegals began their business 20 years ago. They work with local orchards, including Brighton Woods, to source heirloom varieties of fruits for their product line. With a footprint that covers just over 3,000 square feet, their space is divided equally between retail, storage and production. Open to the public on weekends from May through December, retail hours are expanded to six days a week during autumn harvest season. The winery and distillery offers tours, tastings and special events throughout the year.

As with other businesses during COVID-19, adjustments were made to the retail side of the operation and outdoor seating has been added. Visitor groups are spaced and Plexiglas dividers have been installed down the middle of the tasting bars. Mask compliance is required by Wisconsin law.

They specialize in fermented or hard cider. Their selection includes sparkling, draft, table and dessert styles with medium-sweet offerings as well as the lean to dry end. Many of their specialty ciders are single batch production, with a barrel yielding just 20 cases of product. Charles manages the fermentation side of the business; Melissa does the distillation. Wisconsin-grown crops are selected to make their whiskies and brandies and are aged in new, charred Wisconsin oak barrels. With the help of three generations of family from branch to bottle, friends also pitch in and help during the spring packaging season.

To decide what cultivars to use, Charles evaluates each year’s regional apple harvest. “I see what’s ‘nifty,’ what speaks to me,” he said. While apples and pears are typically categorized by their use and taste, cider apple and perry pear varieties are grown for their drinking characteristics. The couple also produces perry, the pear counterpart of cider. They incorporate different cultivars of fruit in production, including some heirloom varieties.

In addition to a brick and mortar presence, AeppleTreow Winery and Distillery sells their collection of hard ciders, wines and spirits online. This part of the business has proven more complex, however. “We work with a compliance service for shipping to 39 states,” Charles said. “It is so complicated, it would literally be easier to ship guns. Besides the federal excise tax, there are different levels of sales tax by state, county and municipality.”

Their website offers a glimpse of their business philosophy: “We are cidermakers. We are orchardists. We are historians.” They produce a Champagne-method heritage cider made from the same apple varieties grown by Thomas Jefferson including Hewes, Harrison, Graniwinkle and Albemarle Pippin. A great deal of time goes into developing their artisan ciders, and in-depth descriptions are included with the online offerings. An example is their “Siskin Scrumpy Funked Cider,” listed as a “semi-sweet cider flavored to simulate the wild funkiness of English farmhouse ciders. A little tannin grippiness, a little tickle at the back of the throat and smoky in a bacon-ish way.” With their passionate love of their craft, business philosophy and penchant for heritage heirloom fruits, AeppleTreow Winery and Distillery truly does live up to its name.