What if you could enjoy all the apple goodness of Apple Hill without all the people, traffic, and that drive up I-80? Only an hour from San Francisco and 20 minutes from Guerneville and the Russian River Resort Region lies the Gravenstein Apple region. Well before western Somoma County was a wine region of international repute, it was one of the world’s premier cider apple regions. The Gravenstein apple, an edible cider apple from Denmark, is the premier apple in the region for which highway 116 is named. Famed horticulturist, Luther Burbank praised the apple saying,
“It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.”
Slow Food Russian River agrees and have have been spearheading efforts to raise awareness about this heritage varietal and reclaim demand from the ubiquitous vineyard production. More than 50 other apple varietals grow in Sonoma rounding out the options for cider blending. Each fall you can experience first-hand the full cycle from farm to table with this great family-friendly adventure.
Gravensteins are tart and crisp enough to stand out in apple pie recipes yet not so abusive to you gums as a Granny Smith making them really good eating apples as well. Thanks to it’s complex flavor profile they work well in both ciders and applesauce. Since our kids could probably survive on applesauce and crackers alone, we love to take family excursions out to the orchards to pick the apples ourselves. The kids are amazed that food grows right there on the trees and are tantalized by the idea of fresh applesauce in their lunch futures. Sonoma Farm Trails is the best resource for finding u-pick orchards. Our two favorites, Apple-A-Day Ratzlaff Ranch (13128 Occidental Rd, Sebastopol) and Gabriel Farms (3175 Sullivan Rd, Sebastopol) are both located outside of the city of Sebastopol. Make sure you call ahead to confirm which apples are in season and arrive early to get the best selection of trees to pick. Gravensteins usually the first apples to ripen in late summer during August and September followed by Roman Beauties and Golden Delicious in early fall during September and October.
If climbing ladders isn’t your jam, nearly all of the apple farms on the Farm Trails directory have fruit stands where you purchase professionally pick apples by the bushel. Andy’s Produce Market (1691 Gravenstein Hwy N, Sebastopol) on Highway 116 and Hales Apple Farm (1526 Gravenstein Hwy N, Sebastopol), right across the highway are some other good options closer to town.
Once you have your apples you face a decidedly tough decision; sauce, butter, pie filing, cider or all of the above! For us, the aforementioned applesauce heads make the decision easy but we have friends who swear by cider. At the Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Experiment Farm (7777 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol) you can press up to 100 pounds of apples into 5 gallons of fresh apple cider using their free community apple press. While you are there take a docent-led tour of the grounds and learn about how Sonoma became a horticultural powerhouse. Luther Burbank was personal friends with Henry Ford and applied the innovative spirit of the time to plant cultivation.
Pro tip; press different cider apple varietals into separate containers and then employ the whole family to taste the difference and create the best blending ratios, just like wine blending. There is no magic to it, just consider which flavors and smells will work together to create most balanced and delightful drink for you families taste. Try a base of Gravenstein juice and use Roman Beauties to increase the aromatics and Golden Delicious to dial up the sweetness to your liking.
Taking fresh cider to the next level by fermenting it into hard cider is a lot easier then you might expect. Find a friend with a Mr Beer kit or other home brewing rig, throw in some champagne yeast with the juice and let nature do its thing. In about week you will have homemade hard cider ready for bottle.
The downside to DIY apple processing is that it takes a significant time commitment. If you can keep your kids engaged in each step of the process, the learning opportunity is invaluable. However, between dance, ceramics, Scouts, and gymnastics, our schedule is often too packed for all this urban homesteading goodness. When we feel the crunch but still need our cider fix, or when it is off-season, we go to Apple-A-Day Ratzlaff Ranch because they have spent years perfecting the best fresh apple cider blend. It is super sweet without cloying thanks to the sharper and more aromatic apple varietals that they blend in. On a hot fall day, cold cider from here is amazing. We usually make sure we buy an extra couple of bottles because we are guaranteed to chug one down before we even get home.
Sonoma County is leading the artisanal/craft cider movement with fruit-forward and, most-importantly, dry and off-dry ciders. Unfortunately many commercial cider brands tarnish the reputation of cider in the minds of drinkers due to their overly sweet and poorly crafted ciders.
Ace Cider (2064 Gravenstein Hwy N., Sebastopol) is the granddaddy of Sonoma cider production finding distribution success with a range of ciders. More recently however new upstarts like Tilted Shed (7761 Bell Road, Windsor) and Devoto Orchards are rekindling interest is heritage cider techniques and styles. Check out Tilted Shed’s Cidre, a California take on the Basque cider style from southern France and Northern Spain. Where Devoto is aimed at the high-end cider market, their sister brand Golden Gate Cider (tasting room coming soon to the Barlow) is more widely distributed in cans and fairly easy to find. Our favorite cider at the moment is Horse & Plow‘s (1272 Gravenstein Hwy N, Sebastopol) Hops and Honey which as you might guess has the floral quality of hops offset with light touch of honey. Luckily for the parents out there, Horse and Plow has a light kids snack menu and nice outdoor space to keep the littles busy.
Of course the most American way to get your apple fix is in an apple pie. Mom’s Apple Pie (4550 Gravenstein Hwy, Sebastopol) on Highway 116 north of Sebastopol started as way for Betty “Mom” Carr to highlight their family orchards apple production. They have grown to 16 different pies in production but the standouts are still the traditional double crust apple pie and the natural-sugar apple pie which is sweetened with apple juice instead of processed sugar.
At our house, if any apples survive the saucing mania they often make their way in apple turnovers. We find turnovers to be nearly as delicious as apple pie but easier and much faster to make; 20-Minute Apple Turnovers. Here are 10 more Irresistable Apple Recipes to Make Right Now.
As if all that apple action isn’t enough, you can really kick up a hootenany at the Gravenstein Apple Fair (Ragle Ranch Regional Park, 500 Ragle Road, Sebastopol) in early August which obviously celebrates the eponymous apple with cider, microbrew, and winetasting; live music on two stages; arts & crafts, games, and farm animals for the kids.
The Sonoma County Harvest Fair (Sonoma County Fairgrounds,1350 Bennett Valley Rd, Santa Rosa) in early October has a wider purview and this year features new ciders from Gowans Heirloom Cider and Specific Gravity Cider Company along side some classics from Ace Cider and Golden State Cider. Live music, dancing, and lots of games including the apple slingshot will keep the whole family entertained.
This local insight brought to you by your hosts at Lucky Bend Lookout; a modern yet family-friendly Russian River vacation home. Check our availability and book online or call Sarah at 415-516-6961 to reserve.