On the morning of last fall's Lower East Cider Festival, Dan Pucci was sure he'd spend the bulk of the day consoling people. "It was the first year of the festival, and the first time we'd ever done anything like that," he explains. "I thought I'd be telling them [the 15 New York cider producers he'd invited to share their products, and the handful that came from out of state] that next year would be better, and not to worry about it." Instead, 5,000 people crowded onto Orchard Street in front of Wassail, New York's first dedicated cider bar where Pucci works as the cider director, and he didn't sit down all day.
Cider is having a moment, but not in the transient food-trend sense. The product's place in the beverage world is still largely to be determined, so the buzz is more like a coming out party for something that's just getting started — and at the center of it all, thrilled to be playing a role in the ever-changing conversation, is Pucci, the hype man cider is lucky to have.
Pucci grew up in Delhi, NY, where he had his first experience working in the beverage industry during high school, stocking shelves at a local wine store. Sitting in the back room reading books by British wine critic Jancis Robinson ("mostly out of boredom at first"), Pucci found he was actually interested, and that there always seemed to be more to learn. When he moved to New York City after college, he became a sommelier, selling wine for the likes of Eataly and Otto.
His shift to cider happened about a year before Wassail opened, in the spring of 2015, when Pucci was running the beverage service for a small nightly chef's counter at Box Kite Coffee. The tasting menu was short and casual, and Pucci wanted to keep beverage-pairing prices low. He saw cider as a natural fit, and in researching local producers and varieties, "a lightbulb went off," he says.
The biggest draw was that cider seemed to be a unifying beverage, a level playing field that made his job more exploratory and exciting. "People have all sorts of preconceived notions about what wine is and how they feel about it," he says. "There is a knowledge barrier and a cost barrier to entry. But cider has none of that. There's nothing to hold people back, except maybe that there are a lot of choices."
Pucci reached out to the Wassail team as soon as he heard that the cider-focused bar and restaurant was in the works, and was quickly brought on board as cider director. Now, he divides his time between pouring drinks for customers, meeting producers from around the country and across the world to learn their processes and stories, and helping to secure cider's place in the future. "We're generations away from knowing about cider a fraction of what we know about wine," he says. "There's a lot of work ahead of us. But it's amazing to be a part of building a vocabulary and a culture."
If Pucci talks about cider like he's trying to sell you some — in the most effusive, genuinely enthusiastic way possible — it's because he is, and in a bigger sense than just from behind the bar at Wassail. His upcoming projects include a marketing campaign with the New York Cider Association to get both producers and consumers to move from talking about loving cider to talking about why, which means developing a universal language for varieties and flavors.
Also on deck is the Urban Cider Project, a collaboration with the Catskills' Wayside Cider that will promote harvesting and producing cider from fruit found within the five boroughs. The relationship between cider and place is particularly important to Pucci, and he thinks it will be a major pillar of the product's success. "Wine is from a place far away, a place you'd go on vacation," he says. "Cider is from where you went to college, or where your aunt lives, someplace you drive through all the time. That's a very different connection for people to have to the product."
Kendra Vaculin is Eater's associate producer for video.
Daniel Pucci is the cider director at Wassail in New York City. Images by Khushbu Shah.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
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