The drive to Walker Apples in Graton is as picturesque as Sonoma County gets. What were once miles of apple orchards along Graton Road are now seemingly endless views of vineyards. West County looks more like Wine Country than apple country today, but 100 years ago, if you were visiting Sebastopol, you would see apple orchards lining the roads, not vineyards. And amongst them, one of the county’s most celebrated crop—the Gravenstein apple.
Sonoma County and apples have been a perfect pair since the state’s early beginnings. Brought to the county in 1811 by Russian trappers, the microclimate helped the Gravenstein crop thrive. Few areas around the globe can accommodate the fickle fruit, which is native to Denmark, the country’s national fruit, and grown along coastal climates such as Nova Scotia.
Sonoma County’s long love affair and loyal provider, the Gravenstein apple is not new to the ways of harvest season. In the late 1890s, Luther Burbank, a cultivator of the apple, advised farmer Nathanial Griffith to plant the crop for commercial use. Burbank introduced 10 apple varieties in addition to his hundreds of plum and prune varieties in the late 1800s. According to the Western Sonoma County Historical Society, Burbank commented that, “The Gravenstein cannot be successfully raised in the hot valley’s of Southern California. Sonoma County seems to be its home.”
In 1881, the original Warren Dutton purchased 200 acres in Santa Rosa. Prunes, hops, and pears lead to apples and grapes. Steve Dutton, president of Dutton Ranch, is a fifth generation farmer and second-generation apple farmer. With 1,400 acres of Dutton Ranch farming acres, 180 acres are dedicated to apple orchards, and 90 of them Gravenstein apples. Today, they’re one of the largest local producers of apples in the county.
In 1950, there were more than 7,000 acres of Gravenstein’s in Sonoma County, producing more than half a million boxes annually. The 2017 Sonoma County Crop Report released on August 14 of this year shows a total of 704 acres of Gravenstein’s with a value of $1.1 million, down from last year’s $1.5 million. After years of establishing itself as the booming crop of the county, the Gravenstein has been on a major decline. So, how can Sonoma County save one of its most celebrated crops?
Turning onto Upp Road, a long dirt trail with signs that read, “Apples this way” and an arrow pointing up to continue onward, the views of vines begins to fade and tiny apples lead the way to one of the oldest family-run apple farms left in the county.
“They used to be apple orchards,” says Lee Walker, sixth generation apple farmer and owner of Walker Apples, about the vineyard-lined roads coming into town. “There are few acres of apples left. Wineries are worth so much more now, apples can’t compete.” At 87 years old, Walker’s lived on the Graton property his entire life, along with 50 acres of apple orchards—35 of them dedicated to Gravenstein’s. “It used to be 32 places producing apples like we’re doing today, and we’re some of the last ones,” says Walker. “They used to send out hundreds of thousands of boxes from this area. Now, just a few thousand.”
Walker grows 27 varieties of apples on property, including Gala, Macintosh, Golden Delicious, Gravenstein’s and more. “Gravenstein’s king,” he says. “They’re the best. It’s great in sauces and even eating out of hand.” Over the last 10 years, Walker’s been planting more Gravenstein trees, replacing the old. “See those on the top up there?” He points to a couple old Gravenstein trees on the hillside. “Those are some of the originals. My grandfather planted them in 1910. There are about 40 left.”
The history at Walker Apples runs deep, and with a devastating labor shortage shared industry-wide, the bruised apple industry is seeking ways of staying alive.
“There’s no labor. There are help wanted [signs] everywhere, but nobody has any labor—even the grape industry, they’re hurting,” he says. ”Gravenstein prices have gone up and labor costs have gone up so much, it doesn’t work out.”
At Dutton Ranch, labor is not a big problem because of the H2A program. “We pay a lot of attention to labor at the ranch, and we have plenty of it,” says Dutton. “That’s why we have a big crew to harvest with.” He adds that the Gravenstein is a harvest challenge. “It’s difficult to harvest, the skin is so fragile. If you squeeze a Gravenstein too hard as you pick it, you will have five bruises where your fingertips were.”
Dutton and his brother, Joe, recently removed two apple orchards, including a Red Delicious orchard to replace with Gravenstein apples. “It’s important for us to be a diverse farm,” he says. “As long as we can, we’re going to continue to farm apples.”
Nearly 18 years ago, Paula Shatkin, leader of the Slow Food Russian River Gravenstein Apple Presidium Project, noticed apple orchards were being removed. She was inspired to get the Gravenstein apple listed as one of several specialty foods at risk of going extinct as a national food product. Slow Food USA is part of the global Slow Food movement active in more than 160 countries. In the U.S., there are more than 150 local chapters and 6,000 members.
“If you live in Sonoma County, it’s hard to believe but in most other areas of the country, it’s virtually impossible to find Gravenstein apples for sale,” says Bob Burke of Slow Food Russian River. “No apple farmer in the county exclusively grows Gravenstein’s. They bruise easily and don’t store well,” he says. “To save them, we must save the local apple farmers.”
The nonprofit has taken several steps to increase awareness of the problem. Each July, they hang two banners in Sebastopol that read: “The Gravenstein’s are coming!” When they’re finally available, the banner is changed to read, “The Gravenstein’s are here!” They also buy Gravenstein’s from local farmers and give them away at the Sonoma County airport at the tourist kiosk, something few airports offer to visitors and locals.
During the months of August, September and October, people can also visit the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm and crush their own apples and make their own apple juice for free.
Just as local grapes make our county’s world-famous wines, it’s local apples that are responsible for outstanding ciders, an industry quickly expanding. Currently, Sonoma County offers 10 cideries, not to mention the local restaurants and tasting rooms also pouring ciders—the trend is ripening.
“Cider isn’t anything like beer,” says Sharon Gowan, co-owner of Gowan Heirloom Cider with her husband, Don Gowan. “Our cider is regulated and produced as wine. It’s fermented, not brewed. Fine ciders are made exactly like white wines to preserve the aromatics and character of the fruit, flavor, orchards and terroir,” she says. “They can be bubbly or still.” Gowan’s ciders are 100 percent estate. Everything comes from the farm; no flavors are added. “Some people are familiar with flavored ‘cider coolers’ (like a wine cooler) which are made more like hard sodas. They’ll ask if we make a cherry flavored cider. I tell them, ‘We would have to grow cherry trees if we’re going to have a cherry flavor.’”
The Gowan family homestead in Anderson Valley in Mendocino has been growing apples on their orchards since 1876.
The cider company bottles four ciders, and The 2018 North Coast Wine Challenge gave their Heirloom Cuvée 98 points, and it received a double gold in the California Cider Competition. Gowan's Gravenstein cider received a double gold by the International Women’s Wine Competition and 96 points, making it the top ranked cider in the three competitions. And this year at Nor Cal Brew Competition held at Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Gowan’s ciders swept the class.
“We used to deliver apples by horse and wagon,” she says. In the 1800s, there was no refrigeration. If you wanted to homestead a property, you had to homestead an orchard to provide a food source.”
Currently in their sixth generation, they grow more than 80 varieties of heirloom apples, meaning the apple has been in existence for more than 100 years as a varietal. The apples thrive on their property in the coastal valley.
“Warm days and cool nights make for the most extraordinary growing conditions—that’s the secret sauce for premium wines and ciders alike,” says Gowan. “The age-old dance between sun and soil, water and weather produce unique flavor profiles, specific to this area for each of these kinds of apples.”
Gowan’s passion for California cider and honest farming practices has taken her a step further in the industry. As president of the California Cider Association, Gowan recently spearheaded the launch of the Real California Cider certification program, aimed to set boundaries and help people identify cider that’s grown with California fruit. “A cider that is marketed as California should be made exclusively with California fruit, just like wine or any agricultural product,” she says. (See Real California Cider)
Since 1922, Manzana Products Co. has been the producer of apple products such as apple juice, apple sauce and apple cider vinegar. Today, they’re the last of the local apple canneries, with their top local growers including Meyer Farming, Dutton Ranch, Marshall Ranch and Walker Apples. Manzana’s own brand, North Coast Organic, specializes in producing top notch, single varietal apple juices and sauces. One of these special single varietals is the Gravenstein apple.
“While there used to be hundreds of apple growers in Sonoma County, today we are down to less than a dozen,” says Alissa Trinei, marketing manager for North Coast Organics at Manzana. The Gravenstein apple comes with harvesting and shipping challenges.
“Unfortunately, they have a thin skin and can bruise easily, making them almost impossible to ship. They’re also short stemmed and difficult to keep on the tree,” says Trinei. “Now, with the vineyards taking over, watching the apple trees as they’re leveled one by one is devastating. At the rate the industry is going, it’s easy to say that Gravenstein apples, as a crop, may be extinct within the next five years.”
Staying hopeful, Manzana will celebrate its 100-year anniversary in 2022, and they have exciting plans lined up for the centennial.
“The Gravenstein is a favorite, not only in Sonoma County, but across the country. They’re highly aromatic, and offer a classic honey-like flavor, the perfect balance of sweet and tart,” she says. “They’re the first apples to ripen, and during the season, people come to Sonoma County from near and far to get their hands on this special apple.”
As farmers and purveyors of the beloved Gravenstein apple celebrate this harvest season, all remain hopeful. “I would love to see existing orchards renovated, more orchards planted, more apple farmers able to live off the fruits of their labor, higher prices paid for apples and cider and our agriculture and economy benefiting from the increased diversity,” says Ellen Cavalli, co-owner of Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Windsor. “It’s magical—to walk through the orchard throughout the year connects you to the cycle of life and the seasons and the Earth,” says Cavalli. “Every year is different—every year has its challenges, but you’re never bored, and you never know exactly what you’re going to get.”
What can consumers do to keep the industry alive?
“Support your local farmers as much as you can. They’re the future of the industry,” says Tim Godfrey, head cider maker at Golden State Cider, who makes a cider called, Save the Gravenstein. “Focus on the fruit, celebrate its history and diversity, and stay authentic and genuine to the ingredients you’re working with.”
The Gravenstein is a local heirloom, and since 1973 it’s been celebrated at the Gravenstein Apple Fair, which is Sonoma County Farm Trails' primary annual fundraiser. Guests stroll the dusty grounds, many with a bag of apples in one hand and a cold cider in the other. Local farmers display their vintage tractors and the fruit is used to adorn vendor displays.
Carmen Snyder, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Trails, has managed the fair since September 2012. Her work is dedicated to taking the fair back to its agricultural roots, celebrate Sonoma County's rural heritage, keep the Gravenstein as the star of the show, and raise awareness about the importance of supporting local food systems and diversified agriculture. Through the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair held at Ragle Ranch Park in Sebastopol each August, the apple homage is highly anticipated, and more important now than ever. In 2018, more than 40 farmers were on site to share their products and offer demonstrations and workshops such as cow milking, beekeeping, sheep shearing and more.
“This year’s theme was habitat renewal and community resilience,” she says. "In the wake of the fires, we saw how strongly our community came together to feed and take care of each other, and we wanted to honor those connections and create even more conversation around emergency preparedness and the importance of knowing our neighbors,” says Snyder. She emphasizes the importance of supporting local producers, buying from farmers markets and asking where your food is sourced from at local restaurants. “The landscape is always changing in relationship to the market. In 1973, our membership consisted of dozens of apple producers and only four wineries. The 1973 crop report showed 8,660 acres in apples and 6,353 acres in prunes (which was at 20,000 acres in 1923). There are currently about 2,200 acres of apples in Sonoma County,” she says. But apples are still being planted, and the organic market and craft cider industry has helped to add value to that sector.”
At the fair, local hard cider makers display their labor of love, serving chilled tastes of the apple harvest. Ned Lawton, founder of Ethic Ciders in Sebastopol, pours a taste of Gravitude Cider, made from 90 percent locally grown, organic Gravenstein apples. “Gravenstein’s are what sets us apart from the rest of the country when it comes to making cider,” says Lawton. “The apples give us a floral, yet minerality structure that is unlike many other apples.” As for the growing cider industry, Lawton says it’s here to stay. “Cider is a new and emerging industry—there’s a lot of growth ahead of us for cider makers.”
The Gravenstein apple has deep roots in Sonoma County and has grown to be a treasured fruit both locally and worldwide. Here’s what to know about the and delicate and decadent apple.
In 1811, Russian trappers first planted Gravenstein’s in Sonoma County.
The apples ripen in late July, making it one of the first apples in North America ready for market.
The Gravenstein contains sweet and tart flavors—great for apple pies, sauces and eating.
Delicate and perishable, the Gravenstein is in danger of becoming broadly extinct.
The apples short stems result in falling off the tree quickly, also making for a challenging crop to harvest.
Gravenstein apple orchards have declined during the past six decades, by almost 7,000 acres and are down to 960 acres currently.
Only six commercial growers remain in Sonoma County. Together, their crops produce 15,000 tons of Gravenstein apples per year.
The inaugural Sonoma County Cider Week was recently held in early August, thanks to Ellen Cavalli, co-owner of Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Windsor and member of the Heritage Cider workshop committee for the U.S. Association of Cider Makers’ National Cider Conference. Cavalli and her husband, Scott Heath, have two acres of medium density organically grown apple and pear trees planted at their home farm in Sebastopol, growing more than 130 cider apple and pear varieties.
“I call it a pomological research station,” she says. “There’s only one way to find out whether a variety grows well in our region—by growing it yourself.” Cavalli and Heath source the majority of their apples from three to four organic growers locally, mostly in Sebastopol. Her inspiration for developing a week dedicated to the cider industry came from both the spirit and camaraderie following last year’s wildfires and other countrywide successful cider weeks.
“Nothing demonstrated how important community is more than the devastating fires last October. Those of us in the cider world are bound by the love of our home,” she says. “It’s time for Sonoma County to show why it deserves to be recognized as a world-class cider making and apple-growing region. Our soil, climate, and other variables specific to our terroir result in ciders of extraordinary depth and earthiness.”
The week included events like a backyard pig roast and cider dinner at Tilted Shed, the craft cider tent and artisan tasting lounge at the Gravenstein Apple Fair and the traditional Spanish celebration known as Txotx (pronounced “choach”) event at Tilted Shed, where casks of wild-fermented Gravenstein cider are tapped, and at the shout of “Txotx!” drinkers line up to catch a glass of cider from the long streaming arc straight from the cask. Next year, Cavalli hopes to make it a month-long event.
“We’ve had some push-back from California based cider companies that want to promote their cider as local, but don’t use local fruit,” says Sharon Gowan, co-owner of Gowan Heirloom Cider, about the recent launch. “Out of state entities would rather the consumer not be able to tell the difference,” she says.
So far, six cider companies have completed the Real California Cider certification.
“The association helps us cider makers to better define the market,” says Ned Lawton, founder of Ethic Ciders in Sebastopol. Marketing to consumers and legislative roadblocks such as taxes for producers, are concerns for Lawton. “Cider is still an emerging industry, and an organization like this helps legitimize that ciders are here to stay and there’s a lot of growth ahead of us.”
As a grower, Gowan says it’s a disheartening discovery that ciders are marketed as local, without using local apples. Gowan explains the difficulty faced when a consumer purchases local cider, expecting it to be made with local apples. However, that’s not always the case. “It’s become muddled and sometimes vague,” she says. “You can imagine how many winemaker’s around the world would love to use the Sonoma brand to get a higher price for their wine, without using Sonoma grapes. Not that consumers wouldn’t choose wine or cider from Washington or Oregon, Chile or China—just that the consumer should have that choice,” she says.
Other states can produce apples for a lower price. As labor costs are often less, regulations are more business friendly, and their economies of scale benefit. The cost is even lower for concentrates on the international market.
“The cider maker’s that use local fruit will command a premium in the market. Terroir matters, and California has some of the best places to grow apples. That’s evident in the quality,” says Gowan.
“If you’re not saying, ‘We use 100 percent California apples,’ you’re not.”
Gowan compares the scenario to wine. “Similar to the wine industry, AVA’s protect the source of the grape and the vineyard bottled. This has an impact on tourism and the local economy. Tourists arrive in California for two reasons: If you’re a kid, it’s Disneyland. If you’re an adult, it’s Wine Country.”
It’s no mystery that the North Bay’s Wine Country has a leading economic impact at almost $600 million in total value, according to the 2017 Sonoma County Crop Report.
“That massive influx of revenue generates taxes for every level of government, improves the local standard of living, and benefits local school budgets. All because the wine industry protected the source of the fruit with AVA’s,” she says.
And as far as Gowan is concerned, it’s the right thing for consumers, too. “We have to do right by the consumer. Misleading labeling robs the local consumer of their rightful choice, takes money from the local community, and shortchanges the local economy.”
Imagine if the majority of our California wines were made from grapes sourced in other parts of the world, but we allowed it to be sold as local Sonoma or Napa wine. With the California Cider Association’s help, ambiguity and transparency may be the way for all parties to come out looking and smelling like an apple pie.
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