There was a time when Sebastopol was dotted with so many apple trees, it was known as the “Gravenstein Capital of the World.” Many of those orchards have given way to vineyards in the decades since the region’s Gravenstein heyday, but even now you can easily spend a day meandering down the lanes and byways of Sebastopol’s farms and orchards, picking apples and sipping just-pressed cider — perhaps even pressed by you.
That would be just fine with Sebastopol’s farmers, cider makers and community leaders.
Tall, lanky and farm-raised, Dave Hale walks his 10 acres of apple orchards off the Gravenstein Highway several times a day, intimately familiar with every one of its 1,000-plus trees. He knows the look, feel and unique flavor profiles of the more than 40 varieties of heirloom apples he grows, from the Gravenstein and Honeycrisp, to the Pink Pearl, Akane and little known, but traditionally English Ashmead’s Kernel — all available in season at several farmers markets and the farm stand at Hale’s Farm.
Hale has what Jolie Devoto-Wade, another lifelong apple farmer and cider producer, calls “apple fever.” It’s a passion that fuels the small but tenacious group of local farmers, cider producers, activists and community leaders who believe apples can still put Sebastopol on the map. They note the farms and tasting rooms near the Gravenstein Highway — Highway 116 — where tourists and foodies can spend a day exploring Sebastopol as a craft cider or farm visiting destination and discovering for themselves why no supermarket Red Delicious can beat the flavor burst of a fresh, local apple.
“Apples have a whole lot of personality and are super useful in so many applications — cider and apple pies, of course, but it’s really cool incorporating them into food in different ways and learning about the history,” says Devoto-Wade, who launched Golden State Cider with her husband, Hunter Wade, in 2012 to help promote apple farming in Sebastopol. “Honestly, I think craft cider is key for supporting local apple farmers and keeping the Gravenstein going.”
You can taste those bold, aromatic ciders at the Golden State taproom, which opened in 2018 at The Barlow, a place with its own apple history. This industrial-chic hub with restaurants, tasting rooms and boutiques is a former applesauce canning facility.
This has long been apple country. Gravensteins, the tart red and green-speckled fruit that originated in Denmark, have thrived in Sonoma County since at least the early 1800s. Sebastopol’s apple industry reached its height before World War II with nearly 14,000 acres devoted to apples, including some 9,700 acres devoted to Gravensteins. But apple orchard acreage has since dropped to around 2,200.
Hale, who has farmed here since 1978, says he could enjoy a much more lucrative and reliable income if he chopped down the rest of his apple trees and replaced them with vineyards. That’s the fate of orchards throughout West Sonoma County, including his family’s former property just south of the current farm.
“You have a marginal crop in apples and a high income crop in vineyards,” Hale says. “But as long as you’re making a living with a small family farm, you’ll continue doing it. In a small family farm, we’re hands on. I’m doing deliveries and doing four farmers markets a week. My daughter runs the farm stand.”
Sebastopol offers ideal weather and soil conditions for the endeavor. Apple trees like the typically wet Northern California winters, followed by summer heat moderated by the morning fog blowing in from the Pacific Ocean, 15 miles to the west.
“We get the fog until 11 or noon in the summers and then temperatures in the mid-80s. That’s perfect weather for apples to grow,” says Sue Walker, whose family farm dates back generations. Walker’s 40-acre farm sits in a forested canyon west of town, and its rustic packing shed is the go-to place for locals wanting to pick up apples in bulk.
The roots of Sebastopol apple trees reach deep down into the soil for water, Walker says, which means the orchards don’t need to be irrigated during the summer. In a state known for historic droughts, the ability to dry farm apples makes them particularly valuable.
“There are all kinds of good reasons to keep apple orchards,” says Paula Shatkin, co-founder of Slow Food Russian River. About 20 years ago, she and others began noticing how many apple orchards were being replaced with vineyards. Shatkin grew concerned that the region was losing its biodiversity, as well as an important symbol of its cultural heritage.
The Slow Food movement espouses “the arc of taste,” the idea that endangered foods with significant histories should be saved. With that idea in mind, she and other local activists, farmers, cider makers, chefs and community leaders launched the “Save the Gravenstein” campaign, which includes the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair in August — peak Gravenstein season — and other local events tied to the fall apple harvest.
It’s a cause dear to Devoto-Wade, whose apple fever dates back to her childhood on the family farm west of Sebastopol. Her parents, Susan and Stan Devoto, moved here from El Cerrito in the 1970s to grow flowers and micro-greens, but became so fascinated by the apple trees on their property, they eventually planted more than 80 apple varieties.
Devoto Orchards is where Golden State Cider began. And the flagship cider’s name? Save the Gravenstein.
If you go
Hale’s Apple farm: This Sebastopol farm stand sells more than 40 varieties of apples during the harvest, which extends through November, as well as sweet, frosty cider. Expect to see pumpkins and gourds, too, for Halloween. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1526 Gravenstein Highway in Sebastopol; 707-823-4613.
Apple a Day Ratzlaff Ranch: From late September through December, the eight-acre ranch offers one of the few U-pick opportunities in the area. Bring a picnic, go apple picking and make a day of it. For Halloween, the ranch builds a hay bale maze for kids and sells pumpkins grown on a neighboring farm. Check www.facebook.com/appleadayranch or call 707-823-0538 for U-pick hours. 13128 Occidental Road in Sebastopol; https://appleadayranch.com
Walker Apples: For a true country experience, wind up gravel-topped Upp Road, past vineyards and orchards to the farm’s busy packing shed. Locals know Walker Apples as a go-to place to buy apples in bulk. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 10955 Upp Road in Sebastopol; 707-823-4310, www.facebook.com/WalkerApples.
Community apple press: Want to press your own juice? Reserve a 20-minute spot on weekends to press your own apples at the free community apple press, which is run by volunteers with Slow Food Russian River at Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Experimental Farm. Bring up to 100 pounds of apples you just picked or bought in bulk. 7777 Bodega Ave, Sebastopol, https://www.slowfoodrr.org/reserve-the-sebastopol-community-apple-press/
Horse and Plow Tasting Barn: Sip single varietal or blended ciders at Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagins’ tasting barn and two-acre garden, shaded by a massive live oak. The duo started out as winemakers but added cider to their repertoire around 2014 to help boost local apple farming. Open from noon to 5 p.m. Friday-Monday at 1272 Gravenstein Highway in Sebastopol. Make reservations at https://horseandplow.com/tasting-barn/.
Golden State Cider: The spacious tap room in The Barlow has indoor and outdoor seating for tasting single varietal ciders and blend ciders, including Save the Gravenstein and others made with Sonoma County apples. Open from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and noon to 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday at 180 Morris Street, Suite 150, Sebastopol, www.drinkgoldenstate.com.
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