Daniel Mueller, SONOMA MAGAZINE
Cider as savior?
The Gravenstein, derived from Europe and named after a Danish castle, transformed west Sonoma County into one of the world’s premier apple growing regions. Its namesake highway (CA-116) now runs through what remains of Sonoma’s apple country, north of Sebastopol.
In recent years, however, this area has quietly become a destination for cider lovers, with some 10 cideries and a growing numbers of taprooms.
Paula Shatkin and her husband were driving along Sonoma County’s scenic back roads when she first noticed something was amiss.
“We saw apple orchards in bloom just being chopped down, willy-nilly, everywhere,” said Shatkin.
That was 18 years ago, right when vineyards were booming and apple farmers were having trouble making ends meet. The iconic Gravenstein had transformed west Sonoma County into one of the world’s premier apple growing regions. In the booming 1940s, nearly 15,000 acres in the county were planted with apple trees. By 2016, that number had fallen to about 2,200 acres.
“Whole orchards were being chopped down and made into vineyards, without a lot of work being done to make sure they weren’t damaging the ecosystem,” said Shatkin. “We were losing our biodiversity.”
Shatkin, a social worker, took action. She rallied local growers, preservationists and environmental advocates to create a local chapter of the Slow Food movement, an international effort to preserve local cuisines and promote biodiversity. “Save the Gravenstein” became a popular rallying cry on bumper stickers and store windows in west Sonoma County.
Shatkin’s Slow Food Russian River was soon on a mission to get more people excited about local apples. Shops in Sebastopol were handing out free, locally grown apples. Banners in town announced “The Gravensteins Are Coming” in July and “The Gravensteins Are Here” in August. The group acquired an apple press and invited residents to press juice at the Luther Burbank farm in Sebastopol.
“We have made a huge difference in the demand for Gravensteins at this point, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still losing apple acreage to vines, unfortunately,” said Shatkin. “But all these years one of our goals has been to help farmers raise the price-point of the apples so that they could maybe make a living growing apples.”