Gravenstein apples became a local commercial crop in the late 1800’s, thanks to horticulturist Luther Burbank after the apples were planted by Russian trappers in 1811. Although vineyards and wine-making has overtaken apples as West County’s main agricultural industry, orchards still hold a place in the community—especially as the local cider industry grows. Despite its historic status, the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple is listed on Slow Food’s list of endangered foods; the apple’s short stem, its variable ripening times throughout its harvest season, and delicate and perishable nature make it a difficult fruit to cultivate. According to Slow Food, local Gravenstein orchards have declined by almost 7,000 acres in the past six decades, and are currently down to 960 acres.
Local cider maker’s decision to use the Gravenstein in their ciders, like Ethic Cider’s Gravitude, Golden State’s Save the Gravenstein, and most of Eye Cyder’s ciders, along with the popular annual Gravenstein Apple Fair, means that the apple is still strong in the public consciousness. Hopefully, the Gravenstein’s recent renaissance among cider makers will help keep the variety alive and preserve it as an agricultural icon of Sebastopol. In celebration of Sonoma County Cider Week, we’ve invited a few local cider experts to speak about the importance of Sebastopol apples.
In Celebration of Cider (Week) by Darlene Hayes
It may not be obvious today, but there was a time not so very long ago when the agricultural pride of Sonoma County—especially in West County—wasn’t wine grapes, but apples. While sadly reduced in number, the apple orchards in and around Sebastopol still yield treasure, golden juice that is embraced by an enthusiastic group of small local companies making cider—the fermented kind.
These cider makers exemplify much of what makes Sonoma County so special, typically incorporating the values of sustainability and good land stewardship into their company DNA. Tilted Shed Ciderworks, for example, uses biodynamic growing methods in their orchard of specialized cider and heirloom apple varieties. Ethic Ciders developed one of the first Orchard Carbon Farm Plans in the country, designed not only to take carbon from the atmosphere but to build and enhance the orchard’s soil health. Most cider companies, such as Goat Rock Cider and Sawhorse Cider, source organic dry-farmed apples, and several, notably Eye Cyder and Old World Winery, exclusively ferment with wild, native yeasts without the addition of sulfites. Make no mistake, local apples pressed in season at perfect ripeness are packed with flavors that concentrate or cold storage apples just can’t match.
Sonoma County Cider Week, running from August 17th through the 25th, is a celebration of all that makes our local ciders so extraordinary. It’s an opportunity to experience the depth and breadth of what cider can be—sweetish or dry, fruity or zippily tart, full-bodied or austere. There’s a cider out there for every palate just waiting to be discovered, and Cider Week is the perfect time for a little adventure.
Preserving an Apple Legacy by Jolie Devoto, Founder of Golden State Cider
Apples are a historical conversation with the land and its people. I love apples because everybody has a story about them, especially if they grew up in west Sonoma County. Our goal when we first started making cider was to reintroduce the Gravenstein apple variety to people through the lens of cider. The Gravenstein, our historical and beloved local apple variety, makes an awesome, juicy cider that tastes just like biting into a crisp, just-picked Gravenstein apple. Every year we’ve grown the production of our Save the Gravenstein cider and are proud to help preserve the local apple economy by working closely with local growers and paying fair prices for the fruit. Although we only have just a couple apple processors left in the area (compared to the height of the apple industry mid-last century when there were over 16 processors) the demand to connect closely with one’s food and drink is increasing in a sea of thirsty, quality-oriented consumers. Who knows what the future will bring for the apple industry, but I feel great knowing that there is now an entire community supporting the proliferation of historical apple varieties. It’s a simple rule of thumb and a concept that we can get behind: drink more local cider, save more local apples.
Respecting Our Orchards from Ned Lawton, Founder of Ethic Ciders
Ethic Ciders is founded on three principles: healthy cultivation, crafting produces with authenticity, and shared connections through community. By using ecological farming practices such as dry-farming—a process that uses the soil’s residual moisture from the rainy season through tillage and surface protection, cover cropping, compost applications, and livestock integration, Ethic Ciders is able to reduce their carbon footprint and create exceptional cider.
Ethic was founded in 2015, when my wife Michelle and I purchased an old abandoned apple orchard. With the addition of permaculture expert Ryan Johnston, we created a team whose goal was to grow and source the very best fruit that could be crafted into great cider. At the end of 2017, we successfully converted and mange two Certified Organic cider orchards and were awarded the 2018 Good Food Award for cider. It’s vitally important that we, as member of the Sonoma County community, continue to support that apple growers here so that we can continue to have a diverse and resilient agriculture here in West County for generations to come.