Apples get a lot of love—passion even. Favorite varieties are defended with vigor as if snack time were the Ninth Circuit Court. Some apples get lavished with adjectives that rival those of a sommelier at Le Cirque.
Even so, there aren’t many apple varieties that have a whole town in love with them. But the Gravenstein does. Sebastopol, CA, is the Gravenstein capital of the world. It’s there that the Gravenstein name adorns street signs, schools, and shops. Not only do they cherish this early season apple, they've also protected and promoted it.
Sebastopolians have made great strides for their apple by placing the Gravenstein into Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. The Ark is a catalog of unique heirloom foods that are endangered by the market or ecological threats. The Ark fits nicely into the Slow Food movement’s goal of restoring biodiversity as well as flavorful, clean, fair, and accessible food to our food system.
Besides having placed it in the Ark of Taste, the champions of the Grav also promote the apple and its growers with free Gravenstein apple boxes at the entrance to the town's civic buildings and library. The boxes feature bios of the farms that produce the Grav.
The apple also gets quite a bit of fanfare at the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair. This year, the 42nd annual Gravenstein Apple Fair happens on August 8 and 9 and includes live music, arts and crafts vendors, local food (and cider!), and lots more. Not to mention Gravenstein apples galore.
To ensure that the community gets the rewards of the bounty, the Slow Food Russian River volunteers (dubbed the “Apple Core”) have offered the free use of an apple juice press at the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm. Just bring apples from your backyard tree, a farm stand, or an afternoon of U-pick and some clean containers and walk out with fresh apple juice.
Feed the Troops
The Gravenstein's history and contemporary endangerment are not unlike other regional fruits, which have suffered the whims of the market and loss of orchard acreage to residential growth. The Grav enjoyed a robust heyday as the dried apple for soldiers of WWII. After the demands of the military were met and the farmers faced a surfeit of the fruit in 1949, they promoted their hometown apple by heading to San Francisco's Embarcadero and throwing apples into the crowds. Along with recipe campaigns, the Gravenstein soon became regarded as the best eating and pie apple in California.
The Sebastopol region, just an hour north of San Francisco between the coast and redwoods, has the prime temperate zone for growing the Gravenstein—cool coastal fog and warm summer days. However, it is also ideal for grapes, and in wine country, grapes trump apples at the market. Many acres of Gravenstein apple orchards have been felled for vineyards; less than 800 acres remain. Likewise, real estate growth has made land prices unsupportable for the family farmers wishing to grow apples.
And if economic challenges were not enough, this year, the little apple faces a trifecta of environmental challenges:
1. The historic California drought: Gravensteins are principally dry-farmed (no irrigation), which means they need a soaking from the winter rains. Sonoma County saw 32 inches of rain this year, 12 inches less than average.
2. Warm winters: Tony Linegar, Agricultural Commissioner for Sonoma County wrote in the 2014 Sonoma County Crop Report that “Apples experienced their lowest yield per acre in recent history. The lack of adequate winter chill hours had a severe impact on the crop. This pattern of insufficient winter chill has caused concern for tree fruit producers across the state.”
3. Fire blight: This bacterial disease (Erwinia amylovora), particularly destructive to pome fruits (apples/pears), is sweeping the region. Although The FruitGuys farmers supplying our Gravenstein apples this year were very lucky and unaffected. “The gods spared us,” said organic farmer Stan Devoto. The gods may have shielded him, but he also took timely preventative measures, working the orchards into the wee hours of the morning to prevent the blight from reaching his trees.
Get the Taste of Sonoma County
All of this is why supporting the Gravenstein is particularly important. The Grav is a mighty little apple and despite its setback, this year it prevails. “What's out there looks good. Despite the warm winter we had good blossom, good bee work, and good weather,” said Lee Walker. Lee's conventional apples have been in FruitGuys boxes for several years.
The FruitGuys, in collaboration with Slow Food, will again issue the Gravenstein Apple Box. This special shipment shares the sweet/tart red-and-green Gravenstein (conventional or organic) with lovers of the Grav outside its hometown.
FruitGuys will also share the love with the farmers, giving back 16 percent of the proceeds. “The FruitGuys has always been committed to helping the small local farmer and, in this case, helping to preserve an important fruit that is close to disappearing,” said Chris Mittelstaedt, founder and CEO of The FruitGuys.
Heidi Lewis writes about farms, bees, and fruit from her home in Sonoma County, CA. She's been with The FruitGuys since they were FruitKids.