Experience the best in apple culture—from pies to cider—in Sonoma County.
Photography by Norma Cordova
You don’t have to read the Old Farmer’s Almanac to know that autumn in Wine Country is harvest time. For most locals, this means picking grapes. For others, though, the season is all about apples.
Sonoma County happens to be one of the best places on Earth for apples, and the valley is home to about 50 types, some of which can only be found here. In fact, before vineyards lined local hillsides, orchards stretched as far as the eye could see.
How do you like them apples?
Cheat Sheet: Apple Country’s Eldest Statesman
Third-generation farmer Lee Walker continues a legacy started by his family more than a century ago.
Talk about longevity: The apple orchard at the heart of Walker Apples was planted in 1910, back when William Howard Taft was president. Owner Lee Walker’s grandpa, Arthur Upp, planted 20 acres in all. The place has remained in the Walker family ever since.
Today, with the fifth-generation of Walkers farming the land, the farm is still one of the best and most colorful places across Sonoma County to buy local apples. It is a slice of history—and visiting is like going back in time.
Depending on when you go, you might get to witness the Walkers’ small packing house. When the family installed the line back in the 1960s, theirs was one of more than 30 packing plants in the county. Now there are only a few left. On your visit, you also will see workers in the orchards, pulling plump and ruby apples from the trees. You might even see 84-year-old Walker up on a ladder himself.
“I’m 84, and they can’t keep me away,” Walker says of his family members. “A good worker can pick between eight and 10 boxes in an hour. I can probably still do three.”
And, oh, the apples. The Walkers grow and sell 26 different varieties in all, including Gravenstein apples that grow on some of the 60 or so remaining original trees. Other varieties include common iterations such as Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, and Pink Lady; as well as lesser-known apples such as Baldwin, Winter Banana (yes, that’s an apple), and Red Gold.
Walker says water (or lack of it) makes Sonoma County apples different from those grown elsewhere in California.
“Our apples [in the county] are essentially dry farmed,” he says. “Because they’re not irrigated, they don’t get swollen up and bland. They have more flavor.”
So how can you identify a good apple? According to Walker, the very best apples are those with an exterior that’s shiny, not dull. And if you knock two together, the fresh apples will click. Also, Walker says apple shoppers shouldn’t be deterred by blemishes or black marks on the outside, as these imperfections are only “skin deep.”
With apples, as with people, it’s what’s inside that counts most.
Walker Apples, 10955 Upp Rd., Sebastopol, (707) 823-4310, facebook.com/walkerapples.
DIY: Pressing for the Community
Skip the grocery store, and hand-press your own fresh apple juice.
Got some apples you want to turn into juice? Head over to the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm, where on weekends, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., you can bring up to 100 pounds of apples and press them into juice on one of two presses open to the community. Appointments are necessary; visit slowfoodrr.org/applepress to make a reservation. 7777
Bodega Ave., Sebastopol, (707) 829-6711, www.wschsgrf.org.
One Fine Day: Apple Country Jaunt
Immerse yourself in everything apple from morning to night. Here’s a rundown of the perfect day.
Start the day with homemade apple pie and a cup of joe at Mom’s Apple Pie in Sebastopol. Owner and local legend Betty Carr still makes all of the dough by hand, which explains why the large ones cost around $20 a pop. In the mornings, Carr’s minions serve up fresh-brewed coffee. 4550 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Sebastopol, (707) 823-8330, momsapplepieusa.com.
Head east on the 116 to Hale’s Apple Farm, where nearly 40 varieties of apples are grown in the orchard. Fresh fruit from the trees is sold at a modest farm stand. (In October, the farm sells pumpkins, too.) 1526 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol, (707) 823-4613.
If you haven’t bought enough apples already, wander across the street and down the road to Andy’s Market, and pick up more apples from local purveyors. You also can stock up on other produce. 1691 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol, (707) 823-8661, andysproduce.com.
Continue into downtown Sebastopol, to The Barlow. Check out the handmade toys at Circle of Hands; then marvel at Tashi Dhargyal, as he paints traditional Buddhist scroll paintings at the Tibetan Gallery and Studio. Finally, grab lunch at Zazu Kitchen and Farm, where chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart have perfected the art of pig. Highway 12 and Morris Street, Sebastopol, (707) 824-5600, thebarlow.net; 6770 McKinley St., Sebastopol, (707) 824-5600, zazukitchen.com.
Head west to visit the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm (see pg. 37). You can take a self-guided tour of the grounds on which Burbank created more than 800 varieties of fruit and nut trees, flowers, and vegetables. His former cottage on the property is now a museum, which presents artifacts and anecdotes from Burbank’s life in the county. 7777 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol, (707) 829-6711, www.wschsgrf.org.
Run up to Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Windsor for a taste of small-batch craft cider. Owners Ellen Cavalli or Scott Heath (see pg. 40) will be on hand to show you around the facility and walk you through your tasting. Afterward, head a few doors down to taste local craft beer at St. Florian’s Brewery. 7761 Bell Rd., Windsor, (707) 657-7796, tiltedshed.com; 7704 Bell Rd., Windsor, (707) 838-2739, stfloriansbrewery.com.
Cap the day in Forestville with dinner at the hippie chic Backyard, where the menu indicates which items are sourced locally. Earlier this fall, chef Daniel Kedan was serving smoked pork belly and apple-stuffed quail with Dragon Tongue beans and confit potatoes. 6566 Front St., Forestville, (707) 820-8445, backyardforestville.com.
DIY: Grab a Bucket
U-Pick apple orchards are like long-term celebrity marriages: They’re hard to find. Here’s our favorite one still in existence.
Become a CSA member, grab a basket, and stroll the modest orchard at Gabriel Farm, located just outside of downtown Graton. In addition to more than 20 different kinds of apples (including Fujis), Lucy and Torrey Olson grow Asian pears, Fuyu persimmons, and more. Farm stand is open weekends; picking by appointment only. 3175 Sullivan Rd., Sebastopol, (707) 829-0617, gabrielfarm.com.
Drinks: Apples That Buzz
Wine isn’t the only adult fruit juice to sip in Sonoma County, thanks to this Windsor tasting room.
Craft cider—that is, fermented apple juice—is a growing category in Sonoma County and the beverage industry as a whole. Here in Sonoma County, at least a half-dozen cider works have burst onto the scene in the last few years.
Some of the more famous local cider works—Sonoma Cider in Healdsburg, Troy Cider in Sonoma, and Devoto Orchards Cider in Sebastopol—make popular (almost cult-status) products that are available in local grocery stores.
As of now, however, only one local cider works has a tasting room that is open to the public: Tilted Shed Ciderworks.
Tilted Shed is the brainchild of Ellen Cavalli and Scott Heath, a husband-and-wife team relatively new to the world of fermenting juice. For years, the 43-year-olds were passionate about cider, from the outside looking in: Cavalli, as a book and magazine editor, and Heath, as a master printer of etchings. Then, in 2010, they purchased a 5.4–acre farm in Sebastopol, and decided to give cider a go.
“There’s a lot of curiosity and hands-on work that goes into making cider,” Cavalli says. “That work is something we both really enjoy.”
The duo planted two of the acres with 100 different apple and pear varieties. (Those apples are still too young, though, so the couple currently sources the fruit they use in their cider from local growers.) Many of the apples are specifically chosen to influence tannins in a batch—these are called “bitter sharp” and “bitter sweet” apples. Cavalli and Heath also grow Gravenstein, Jonathan, and Newtown Pippin, to name a few.
Production at Tilted Shed is small scale. Usually, the duo make no more than one barrel of an experimental cider, and no more than 1,800 gallons of each of Tilted Shed’s key blends at a time. Currently, the most popular ciders are Barred Rock Barrel-Aged Cider—which is aged in Kentucky bourbon
barrels—and Graviva! Semidry Cider, which is composed of
50 percent Gravensteins and a blend of other heirloom and cider apples.
The tasting room opened in October 2014; each tasting costs $5 and lasts about 30 minutes. When you visit, Cavalli or Heath pour samples of all of the ciders available at that time—usually somewhere between three and five. They discuss varieties that go into each cider, walk guests through a photo essay of the production process, and invite visitors to walk through the “cidery” itself. During production, the aroma is incredibly sweet. The tour is worthwhile for that smell alone.
Above all else, Cavalli says she and Heath hope the experience of visiting the Tilted Shed tasting room helps educate visitors about cider as a beverage.
“Cider is misunderstood as something that’s one-dimensional and sweet,” she says. “We want to show people there’s a lot more that goes into it—a lot of complexity and nuance—and that grapes aren’t the local product that can make something worth drinking.”
Tilted Shed Ciderworks, 761 Bell Rd., Windsor, (707) 657-7796, tiltedshed.com.
Cheat Sheet: Sonoma Apple Varieties
Farmers and local botanists estimate there are 50 known species of apples growing in Sonoma right now. Some, however, are more prevalent than others. Here are a few you likely will find at orchards and farm stands around the county.
One of the most common specimens in the county, they are tart and tangy.
If apples can be spicy, these are. Many people like these apples for dessert.
Among the sweetest of
An antique variety that is hot, sweet, and tart, and good for baking or cider.
Among the most versatile apples. This variety keeps well.
Pink Lady/Cripps Pink
A relatively new apple, this is a cross between a Golden Delicious and an Australian. Apples stay crisp and are excellent for eating.
Another old-time apple that once was big in the Sebastopol area. Apples are whitish inside and good for drying.