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.
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.
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.
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.