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A Guide to Sonoma County Apples

Head to Sonoma County to eat, drink, and stock up on the world’s juiciest apples.


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Photography by Norma Cordova

Sonoma County is one of the best places on Earth for apples. The valley—really, the area in and around the town of Sebastopol—is home to about 50 types.

In fact, before so many farmers plowed their apples under to go with the cash king—grapes—apple orchards stretched as far as the eye could see. 

Before grapes supplant apples completely, take a road trip north, where you can meet farmers, press your own juice, and pick crates of produce.

So, how do you like them apples?


 

Photography by Norma Cordova

Meet: 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, Walker Apples is still one of the best and most colorful places in Sonoma County to buy 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 in action. When the family installed the production line back in the 1960s, theirs was one of more than 30 packing plants in the county. Now, there are only a few left. You’ll also likely see people working the orchards, pulling plump ruby apples from the trees. You might even see Walker himself, up on a ladder.

“I’m 84, and they can’t keep me away,” Walker says. “A good worker can pick between eight and 10 boxes in an hour. I can probably still do three.”

And don’t forget about the apples: The Walkers grow and sell 26 different varieties, including Gravenstein apples that grow on some of the 50 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 the lack of it) makes Sonoma County apples different from those grown elsewhere in California.

“Our apples 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 shiny, not dull. And if you knock two together, fresh apples will click. Also, shoppers shouldn’t be deterred by blemishes, as these imperfections are only “skin deep.”

With apples, as with people, it’s what’s inside that counts most.

10966 Upp Rd., Sebastopol, (707) 823-4310, facebook.com/walkerapples.


 

Photography by Norma Cordova

DIY: Pressing Matters

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. The city of Sebastopol contributed a grant for one of the two presses, which are run by Slow Food Russian River, the local slow food group. Reservations required, slowfoodrr.org/applepress.


 

One Fine Day: Apple Extravaganza

The best thing about Sonoma’s apple country? Getting immersed in the county’s prize crop is only a day trip away.

Photography by Norma Cordova

—10 a.m.
Start the day with coffee and house-made apple pie at Mom’s Apple Pie in northern Sebastopol. Owner and local legend Betty Carr still makes all of the pie dough by hand (which explains why the larger finished pies run close to $20 a pop). 4550 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol, (707) 823-8330, momsapplepieusa.com.

—11 a.m.
Head southeast on Highway 116 to Hale’s Apple Farm, where you can find an orchard that grows nearly 40 different varieties of apples, then buy fruit fresh from the trees at Hale’s modest farmstand. (In October, Hale’s also has pumpkins for sale.) 1526 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol, (707) 823-4613.

—11:30 a.m.
If you haven’t bought enough apples, wander down the road to Andy’s Market, and pick up more from local purveyors. You also can stock up on other produce. 1691 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol, (707) 823-8661, andysproduce.com.

—Noon
Continue into downtown Sebastopol to The Barlow. Check out the selection of 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 pork. 6770 McKinley St., Sebastopol, (707) 824-5600, thebarlow.net.

—2 p.m.
Head west to visit the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm. You can take a self-guided tour of the grounds where Burbank introduced 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.

—3:30 p.m.
Run up to Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Windsor for a taste of small-batch craft cider. Owners Ellen Cavalli or Scott Heath (see page 58) will be on hand to show you around the facility and walk you through your tasting. Afterward, head down the road 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.

—5:30 p.m.
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 served smoked pork belly and apple-stuffed quail with Dragon Tongue beans and confit potatoes. 6566 Front St., Forestville, (707) 820-8445, backyardforestville.com.


 

Photography by Norma Cordova

You Pick: Grab Your Own Apples

U-Pick apple orchards are like long-term celebrity marriages: They’re hard to find. Here’s our favorite one still in existence.

Gabriel Farm
Become a CSA member, grab a basket, and stroll the modest orchard at this small farm just outside of downtown Graton. In addition to more than 20 different kinds of apples (including Fuji), Lucy and Torrey Olson grow Asian pears and Fuyu persimmons. Open weekdays by appointment, weekends 10 a.m.–3 p.m., 3175 Sullivan Rd., Sebastopol, (707) 829-0617, gabrielfarm.com.


 

Photography by Norma Cordova

Profile: The Buzz About Cider

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. According to some accounts, the niche grew roughly 70 percent nationwide in 2014. Here in Sonoma County, at least half a dozen new cider works have burst onto the scene in the last few years.

Some of the more famous names—including Sonoma Cider in Healdsburg, Sonoma’s Troy Cider, 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 cider producer has a tasting room open to the public: Tilted Shed Ciderworks.

Tilted Shed is the brainchild of Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli, a husband-and-wife team relatively new to the world of fermenting juice. For years, the couple 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 bought 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 and began sourcing from local organic growers while their orchards matured. Many of the apples are specifically added to cider to influence tannins in a batch. These are called “bitter sharp” and “bitter sweet” apples.

Production at Tilted Shed is small scale. Usually, the duo make no more than a barrel of each experimental batch of cider. 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 Windsor tasting room opened in October 2014. Each tasting costs $5 and lasts 15 to 30 minutes. When you visit, Cavalli or Heath (or both) pours samples of all of the ciders available at that time—usually somewhere between three and five. They discuss the varieties that go into each cider, walk guests through a photo essay of the production process, and invite visitors to tour the cidery. During production, the aroma in the warehouse is enticingly sweet. The tour is worthwhile for that smell alone.

Above all else, Cavalli says she and Heath hope the experience of visiting their 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 only local [fruit] that can make something worth drinking.” 7761 Bell Rd., Windsor, (707) 657-7796, tiltedshed.com.


 

Photography by Norma Cordova

Varieties: Apple Cheat Sheet

There are 50 types of apples growing in Sonoma, but some are sweeter or more prevalent than others. Here are a few you’re likely to find at orchards and farmstands around the county.

Gravenstein

July–August
Among the sweetest (and most famous) in Sonoma County, these apples are good for eating and for drying.

Jonathan

September–October
A common variety in the county, these tend to be tart and tangy.

Mutsu/Crispin

September–October
If apples can be spicy, these are. Many people like these for dessert.

Golden Delicious

September–November
Among the sweetest of the apples.

Arkansas Black

October–November
An antique variety that is tart and good for baking or making cider.

Newtown Pippin

October–November
Among the most versatile, this variety of the fruit keeps well.

Pink Lady/Cripps

October–November
A relatively new apple, this is a cross between a Golden Delicious and an Australian. They stay crisp and are excellent for eating.

Rome Beauty

October–November
Another old-time apple that once was big in the Sebastopol area. This variety is white inside and good for drying.

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