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Sonoma County Food

Sonoma Apples are Second to None

Sonoma apples

Sonoma apples are not nearly as sexy as wine – well, says most wine drinkers, anyway. And yet Sonoma’s agricultural past anchors firmly to the apple. First planted in the area in 1811 by Russian explorers, the Gravenstein apple and other, less fussy, easier to ship apples, were Sonoma’s bread and butter during the boom years of the 1920s through the 1950s. Back then, downtown Sebastopol, the heart of Sonoma apple country, was lined with 25 apple packing houses and numerous canneries (including the Barlow Center) and other apple packing sheds and fruit-processing facilities still dot the landscape. And that is not even accounting for cider apples, the kind that can be turned into quaffable ciders, the kind that Johnny Appleseed had a hand in popularizing. The kind that declined precipitously after Prohibition laws were enacted.

And yet, despite the abrupt decline of acreage planted to apples after the 1950s (thanks, wine grapes!), apples have held on here. With help from the Slow Food movement, the Gravenstein has found a secure future as a heritage crop. Placed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a “living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction,” the Gravenstein also has its own fair.  A few farmers (six, according to Slow Food) work to preserve their Gravenstein orchards by selling the fruit to local cider houses, while other locally planted apples are used in sauce and vinegar.  Since the 1990s, apple-centric businesses have bounced back in the region. Here are just a few products that shine a well-deserved spotlight on the Gravenstein.

Cider

The work of Ellen Cavalli and Scott Heath, Tilted Shed Ciderworks started “out of an obsessive love for apples and cider.“ (Their words, not mine.) Committed to working with apples sourced locally (in this case, within 35 miles), they have planted 100 varieties of apples on their 5+ acre parcel in western Sonoma. Of the six ciders currently offered, one, the Graviva, is an ode to the Gravenstein. Made with 50% Gravenstein apples and a blend of high tannic and heirloom apple varieties, the Graviva is an exaltation on the taste of Sonoma, expressed in the simple, flavorful joy of fermented apple juice.

Vinegar

True, some among us (you know who you are), have taken to drinking cider vinegar for its anti-glycemic effect. Though they make a broad array of vinegars, Sparrow Lane developed a Gravenstein Cider Vinegar from Sebastopol’s famous apple. Produced using the Orleans Method, an old French technique, Sparrow Lane casks (barrel ferments) wine and vinegar for 1 to 3 months. The result is a refined, deeply flavorful product that tastes precisely of place.

Sauce

Manzana Products, the parent company of North Coast, runs an historic apple cannery. Go figure – the company got started by drying fruits and hops from local hopyards and orchards. Today, Manzana, or “apple,” in Spanish, does a brisk private label business in all things apple but does market some of their value-added apple products under the North Coast brand. In addition to juice, cider (the non-alcoholic kind), and sauce, the range of products does include Concord grape juice. But Manzana’s core business is definitively built around apples. This is one company where the name really does tell it all.

 

With 200 years of agricultural history under its belt in Sonoma, apples came close to local extinction. Yet companies like Tilted Shed, Manzana, Sparrow Lane, and many others are dedicated to the apple’s reemergence as a significant part of the Sonoma food shed. With support like this, the number of farmers planting Gravensteins will surely go up. Maybe from 6 to 7, but up. Right?

For a Perspective on Sonoma’s dairy scene, check out this page.

 

Sonoma = Food Innovation

sonoma county = food innovation

Sonoma is not as brash or sassy as its neighbors to the east and south. Its economy built around agricultural products like apples and milk, Sonoma has quietly been gaining on San Francisco and Napa as a hub of new innovations. From cider to cheese, coffee to kombucha, companies are built and trendsetters flock here to launch a name for themselves and for their pioneering products. We want to share a few examples of innovation, our favorite local food and beverage businesses, trailblazers all.

Sonoma Brands – Züpa Noma and Smashmallow launch Sonoma far beyond Wine

Bucolic, sleepy Sonoma is a hot hub of food entrepreneurship and culinary innovation in no small part because of companies like Sonoma Brands. Named for CEO and Founder John Sebastiani’s hometown, Sonoma Brands was launched to develop new packaged food brands. A lover of innovation and category disruption (his KRAVE Jerky reinvigorated the moribund category), Sebastiani is off to a roaring start, creating an entirely new food category with the gourmet, snackable marshmallow company, Smashmallow. Züpa Noma, a line of chilled soups, also launched in 2016, with flavors like organic beet and orange basil that honor the culinary traditions of Sonoma. “Smaller, more innovative brands are going to drive the change in what and how we eat,” said Sebastiani. Either way, it is all snackable and, dare we say, Krave-worthy.

Revive Kombucha

Making kombucha hip seemed like a far-fetched dream in 2010 when Sean and Rebekah Lovett launched Revive Kombucha out of their garage. (Well, really at the Santa Rosa Farmer’s Market.) But batch after batch moved like hotcakes at the local diner on a Sunday morning and the Lovett’s soon built on the success of the original flavor, Boogie Down Craft Cola Redux to include 8 more varieties, some available on draft, all available by the bottle.

Taylor Maid Farms

On a hundred acre farm (dare I say hundred acre wood?) in western Sonoma County, Chris and Terry Martin launched fortuitously into coffee and tea after a friend suggested they start roasting beans in an old barn on the property. From this simple suggestion, a coffee and tea enterprise was born, supporting organic, sustainable coffee production from Columbia and Ethiopia to Brazil and Bali and even the Martin’s farm. (They now partner with Marin’s Silk Road Teas for tea sourcing.) The Martin’s have quietly built a rabid following of coffee lovers for Taylor Maid Farms, fans who pursue with single-minded dedication the unique terroir and qualities of single-origin coffee.

These are just a few of the new innovations in food businesses that call Sonoma home. Maybe it is the mineral-rich  soil and abundant sunshine that attracts farmers and food artisans to this part of the world. No matter what brought them here, Sonoma’s culinary innovators find what they need to thrive among Sonoma’s mix of agricultural and packaged food business. With trailblazers like these on board, Sonoma’s future as a hub of culinary innovation is assured.

A Taste of Sonoma’s Food and Beverage Scene

Sonoma food and beverage

Sonoma County often plays second fiddle to nearby Napa and its fabled wines.  But the depth of Sonoma’s food and beverage scene pushes it past Napa for the sheer diversity of food and beverage businesses that call Sonoma home. True, Napa and Sonoma (and Sonoma’s more suburban neighbor, Marin) both got their start as agricultural suppliers for the big cities to the south. While Napa tilts ever more deeply into wine as its primary value-added agricultural offering, Sonoma has expanded beyond grapes, pushing into diversified products and their next gen counterparts, packaged goods.

WHAT IS SONOMA KNOWN FOR?

DAIRY and CHEESE

Sonoma has a centuries-long history of dairying and its winding roads are are dotted with family farms. Through land trust arrangements organized through Sonoma and Marin Land Trusts, the green pastures and fog-swept coastal cliffs are protected, helping to ensure a steady supply of  the raw materials needed for cheese, cider and other value-added foods.  That makes for some happy cows. And goats. And sheep.  Businesses like Bellwether Farms, Clover Sonoma, Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery, and Sonoma Creamery are just a few of the family farms producing organic milk, award-winning, internationally recognized cheeses and fresh, innovative products. (We will look at each of these business’s products later this month.)

APPLES and CIDER

With help from the Slow Food movement, the area’s local apple, the Gravenstein, has found a secure future as a heritage crop. Placed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a “living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction,” the Gravenstein also has its own fair. A few farmers (six, according to Slow Food) work to preserve their Gravenstein orchards by selling the fruit to local cider houses, including Tilted Shed. Manzana Products, the parent company of North Coast, runs an historic apple cannery. And the Barlow, a former apple cannery in the heart of Sonoma, now plays host to a diverse array of food and beverage businesses ranging from kombucha and yerba mate to coffee and vodka.

POULTRY and EGGS

Less recognized is Sonoma’s role as a home for heritage chicken farming. But companies like Rosie and Rocky thrive here as innovators in sustainable poultry farming and egg production. Honoring both the region’s agricultural heritage and its role as innovators is Petaluma’s Butter and Egg Days, a festival highlighting the city’s entrepreneurial and artisan spirit.  Hip Chick Farms, a new producer of chicken nuggets, fingers and meatballs, is a chicken-based extension of Sonoma’s deep commitment to supporting a future for local agricultural.

Of course you can visit most of these farms as part of a Farm Trails experience or stop in at Healdsburg’s SHED to purchase these and other locally-sourced packaged goods.

As northern California gets ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, which, in 1967, kicked off at the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival on Marin’s Mount Tamalpais, it is worth remembering the agricultural past that helped nourish and inspire what has become northern California’s thriving food scene. Say what you will about hippies and communes, but from Vermont to Wisconsin to California, they had a profound impact on America’s food scene. Thank a hippie for organic produce, granola, fermented foods, handmade cheese and fresh cider. Their counter-cultural spirit took root here in northern California and continues to inspire the area’s food and beverage producers.

The Barlow Center is a Food and Wine Hub

Barlow Center

Sebastopol is the gateway to the West County of Sonoma and it’s many gastronomic delights—restaurants, breweries, creameries and of course wineries and farms. But a gateway implies you simply pass through it on the way to somewhere else, which was the case in Sebastopol, at least until recently. While there used to be a few stops worth making in town, most of the action was found elsewhere. But not anymore.Welcome, Barlow Center!


The Barlow Center, a five-year-old outdoor food, wine and art retail complex conceived by local developer Barney Aldridge, brings many of the West County’s culinary offerings into one central location, making Sebastopol a destination in its own right.

The Barlow is built on the site of what were once apple processing facilities and other industrial, metal-sided buildings. Grapes have now surpassed apples as the local cash crop but the Barlow still pays homage to the noble Gravenstein. The buildings in the Barlow echo the location’s industrial past with uniform roll-top doors, metal facades and high ceilings. The bohemian essence of the West County is hard to capture but the Barlow gets pretty close.

The Barlow Center’s Beginnings

Guayaki Yerba Mate was on-site before the Barlow took shape and its metal, barn-like warehouse headquarters sets the visual tone for the development. The West County serves as an incubator for food and drink trends and Guayaki is a pioneer as the first brand to bring yerba mate to a wide market. The company supports the preservation and protection of South American rain forests with their fair trade certified yerba mate and is now one of the iconic lifestyle brands of Sonoma County. It’s not open to the public but the company has a huge skateboard half pipe inside its warehouse for mate-fueled skate parties.

The DIY, hands-on aesthetic of the West County is on display at the Spirit Works Distillery, makers of superb whiskey, gin and vodka, and at newcomer William Cofield, makers of British-style cheese, a bandage wrapped cheddar and a Stilton-inspired blue cheese. William Cofield operates a creamery and aging room right on site. (The first batches of cheese still have a few weeks to go before they’re ready.)

Sebastopol Food and Wine

My new Barlow Center favorite is Crooked Goat Brewery. Breweries are getting to be as common wineries in Sonoma County (it could be worse) and I was skeptical this new brewery would make it but the Barlow serves as great test market for food and drink brands and Crooked Goat is expanding into a nearby space to meet demand. In addition to their cool label (a piratical, eye-patch wearing goat) the brewery specializes in inventive, fruit and spice flavored brews and high-powered IPAs. I also like their canning machine so you can take a 32-ounce can of their beer home.
The Barlow also gets credit for appealing to both locals who don’t tolerate pretense and the commodification of the West County and tourists looking to get a taste of what the area is all about. It doesn’t get the attention of Napa Valley or San Francisco but Sebastopol in western Sonoma County is a culinary destination in its own right.

For more about Sonoma’s food and wine scene, check out our Sonoma series and be sure to send us your comments.

From Hippy to Happy, Western Sonoma County is a Culinary Gem

sonoma's culinary scene

Western Sonoma County, known locally as “the West County,” is the epicenter of Sonoma’s culinary scene.  What makes it even better is that, at least for now, so few people know about it.

Back in 2013, I was working on Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about Americans working to improve the way we eat. My family and I were living in Santa Cruz at the time but packed our lives into a 1965 Airstream prepared to travel across the country to research and promote the show.  We visited farms, ranches and dairies up and down California, but in the end never left the state. Turns out that living in an Airstream wasn’t really for me, my family, or for the show’s budget.  

We ended up spending the summer along Sonoma’s Russian River in a pretty, rustic-chic campground and then decided to move to Sebastopol, the “capital” of what is locally known as “the West County.” I was disappointed to pull the plug on the road trip, but grateful to land in West County, an area that has long been defined by great food and drink. San Francisco is rightly acclaimed for its world renowned restaurant scene, but I say Sonoma’s bohemian West County does better than the city scene.

Why the West County

Not only are there delicious restaurants, but also cheesemakers, great wineries, Gravenstein apple orchards and homegrown ciders, grass fed cattle ranches and family farms. A lot of these culinary riches travel down Highway 101 to San Francisco, but I like being at the source. Here, we’ve got our own Farm Trails network. 

West County is also a great incubator for new food and drink brands. Nationally recognized brands such as Guayaki yerba mate, Strauss Creamery dairies, Bellwether Farms cheese, Revive kombucha, Russian River Brewing Co., Taylor Maid Coffee, Tilted Shed Cider, Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery are just a few of the companies that come from here. And let’s not forget a few of the dozens of premium wineries like Hirsch, Littorai and Radio Coteau.

Sonoma’s Culinary Scene

Some might argue that the West County doesn’t include trendy, flashy Healdsburg but so what? That city is a culinary destination of its own with the superb wines of Dry Creek Valley, the one-of-a-kind restaurant, food shop and gardening emporium of Shed and the Michelin star destined Single Thread restaurant and farm, a newcomer that has already put Sonoma County on the map for luxury dining. We are all Sonoma.

Thank you, Hippies

The fertility of the West County culinary scene is due, in part, to the area’s climate and soil, which created its own cultural phenomena. In the 1970s, the West County attracted San Francisco and Berkeley hippies looking to leave city life behind and live closer to the land. Say what you will about hippies and communes, but they had a profound impact on America’s food scene. Thank a hippie for organic produce, granola, artisanal ice cream, tofu, craft beer, fermented foods, composting, handmade cheese and yes, even cannabis! All that and more can be traced in part to those long-haired weirdos and their effort to eat and drink outside America’s packaged and processed food industry.

That counter-cultural spirit took root in the West County and continues to flourish and inspire the area’s food and culinary scene. It’s a delicious place to live and a world-class culinary destination.