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It's Gravenstein month in Gravenstein country.

It's Gravenstein month in Gravenstein country

The corny fun of old-fashioned harvest-time hoopla starts early in Sebastopol, California. Heart of Sonoma County's north-coast apple district, Sebastopol is home to summer's first apple, the Gravenstein --ripe in late July and early August.

Grown nowhere else as it is in Sebastopol, the Grav is an unusual as well as an early apple: crisp and very juicy within, it's a red-streaked gold without--with a unique taste that's right on the line where tart becomes sweet. If you haven't yet met this apple and the country where it grows, this month is the time to get acquainted.

The growers put on a fine Gravenstein harvest festival August 18 and 19. But any weekend you can wander the orchard-bordered country roads, stop at hospitable farms for fresh produce, and buy some fresh apples to take home.

Gravenstein country is 60 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge--a one-tank-of-gas round trip from anywhere in the Bay Area. Come for the day, or stay overnight at Strout House, a newly opened period bed-and-breakfast inn in Sebastopol ($65 per night; call 707/823-5188), the Green Apple Inn in Freestone ($55; 874-2526), or at a motel in nearby Occidental.

A century of apples

The first Gravensteins were planted in Sebastopol in 1883 (young Luther Burbank lent a hand in the task), but no one seems to know whether the seed came from northern Europe via Russians at Fort Ross or traveled overland with American pioneers. Whatever its origin, this apple had found the right spot: Sebastopol now grows more than 90 percent of the U.S. Gravenstein apple crop.

Take a map, and wander

Today, downtown Sebastopol is a one-crossroads affair with railroad tracks, a bank, a big feed store, a good bookstore and a better bakery, and a Main Street string of Victorian cottages recycled as office spaces. Locals complain about weekend traffic jammed at each side of the intersection of state highways 12 and 116, but the place still has plenty of country quiet in its character. "We don't,' one resident told us rather proudly, "even have a movie.'

Nonetheless, there are good places to eat or purchase picnic supplies, and many family-run farms to visit. Near Forestville, there are also small wineries to explore (Caswell, Dehlinger, Domaine Laurier, Iron Horse, Mark West, and Russian River Vineyards are six). And if you're attracted to specialty nurseries, you'll be veering off at practically every bend in the road.

Our map on page 36 guides you to ranches and roadside stands where you can buy just-harvested applies; it also shows where the orchards are concentrated. Plot your own route, perhaps with a visit to an outlying village, such as Occidental, Freestone, or almost-ghost Bloomfield. As you pass older orchards, you'll see structures from more prosperous apple eras: gray-weathered, open-gabled packing houses, chimney-topped dryers, and crate-loading platforms.

For a free but rather cumbersome map of Farm Trails stops in Sonoma County, send a stamped, self-addressed, business-size envelope to Box 6674, Santa Rosa, Calif. 95406; the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce, downtown on S. Main Street, has this and other guides (it's open weekdays 9 to 4:30, Saturday 10 to 2).

The Gravenstein Apple Fair

This is a true harvest celebration--as unlike the commercialism of a county fair midway as apples are from oranges.

Yield yourself cheerfully to apple mania. You'll be offered fresh Gravensteins (by the apple, by the pound, by the lug), dried apples, apple pie, apple torte, apple cake, apple bread, apple strudel. You can sample applesauce, apple jam, apple juice, apple wine (drier than the German kind). You'll see apple soap and apple dolls. You can even throw darts at apples. And of course, there's an Apple Queen.

Other participants bring fresh eggs, live goats, garlic braids, dried flowers (and garlic braided with dried flowers), fresh honey, crafts. Food concessions sell Mexican specialties, Greek kebabs, and barbecued local Willie Bird turkey.

To help visitors understand farm life a bit better, farm families will demonstrate activities such as egg candling, tree grafting, bee smoking, goat milking, and the harnessing of draft horses.

The fair ($2.50 for those 13 and older) runs from 10 to 6 both days, in Ragle Park. Turn left off State 116 on Mill Station Road, then turn left on Ragle Road; continue about 1/4 mile to the park. The highway will be crowded both days, so be sure to allow extra travel time.

What to do with all the apples?

The best thing to do is eat them--fast.

But Sebastopol Gravs are also famous as sauce apples. If you're buying apples in quantity, you'll probably want to make sauce of some.

When we canvassed Sebastopol farm wives for a recipe for perfect Gravenstein applesauce, we got different advice from each source. "You see,' one respondent explained, "our Gravenstein is a very personal apple.'

That being the case, you might prefer your own recipe (or find one in the apple cook book prepared by the Sebastopol Apple Corps and sold at the fair or in town).

Ripe Gravensteins are also outstanding-- some say incomparable--for cider. For help on making your own cider, see page 114 of the October 1983 Sunset. Or stop at one of the farms that sell Gravenstein cider (see our map).

Mini-destinations, by country roads

Occidental, for big dinners. Take Occidental Road about 10 miles west from State 116 to the tiny, redwood-shaded village of Occidental. Here, three surprisingly similar Italian restaurants serve family-style meals, specializing in home-made ravioli and a feather-light apple fritter that's a fitting conclusion to a day in apple country.

This cuisine is not a matter of artful little side dishes that might be mistaken for garnishes. What's involved here is pickup trucks in the parking lot, then a big feed, checkered tablecloths, and waitresses in tractor-tread shoes who really care whether you've had enough to eat and never quite believe you have.

Freestone, for a look or overnight. Folded into a green cup of pasture where apple country thins its way westward into sheep country, Freestone was once a stop on a narrow-gauge railroad and has a 100-year-old Greek Revival hotel to prove it (the building, though still evocative, now houses an antique store and a nursery).

Turning north from Bodega Highway on Bohemian Highway, you'll pass a new wool shop, a carpenter Gothic one-room school, the hotel, then a hushed but easy-going general store. Just past, set back from the road, is the Green Apple Inn, a bed-and-breakfast farmhouse with lots of casual porch.

Growing pains in apple country

Though favored by nature with a nearly perfect apple climate, Sebastopol is not Eden. The hilly undulations of its landscape make many orchards picturesque, but more difficult to service with farm vehicles than the straightforward agricultural tracts of the flat Central Valley.

Gravenstein apples don't travel or keep as well as tougher-skinned kinds, so most of the crop is sold for juice or processing; the fresh market for this premium apple has unrealized potential, but there's little money for promotion. A growers' co-op, successful for many years, has recently been abandoned, plagued by a combination of bad apple years and bad business years; its facilities are now owned by a large Oakland-based apple processor.

One way or another, the growers have got to get more tons per acre to earn a fair living from their farms. Currently, 20 tons per acre is the output considered necessary to grow apples competitively; Sonoma County's average production is only about 12. Why? Older trees more loosely planted, wet winters (and fungus infections in apple trees), no irrigation.

County farm advisor Paul Vossen feels that the only way Sonoma growers can compete effectively with year-round, high-volume suppliers from new apple regions in the U.S. and abroad is by irrigating. Apples grown on semidwarf rootstock promise denser, more profitable plantings, but so far such trees have not done well without irrigation.

It's in planting methods that grower Darrel Hurst of Twin Hills Ranch sees hope. He's experimenting with what he calls "hedgerow' plantings: he trains the main branches of his trees out and down, not up, for a bushier, downward-sprawling form. When trees are grown this way, tractors pass alongside (not under) them. He uses the hillsides to advantage, terracing trees so plantings can be closer still. As trees mature, he hopes to see them produce up to 30 tons per acre.

Apple orchards or housing tracts?

The dilemma is one that's familiar in California agricultural areas near large urban centers. The best land for agriculture is also sought for housing. Land costs and taxes escalate. Then growers sell off parcels of land destined to become commuter "ranchettes.' Agricultural zoning should protect the orchards, but variances have been granted repeatedly.

At our press time, a Sonoma County citizens' group was working to qualify a November ballot initiative that could encourage agricultural land use in the county and halt the loss of productive acreage to suburban sprawl. It would create special agricultural production districts, in which only agricultural activity would be permitted, discouraging speculation on future change. It would also attempt to establish a mechanism by which farmers could sell development rights to their land--to the county or some other public trust--and raise capital without building on the land. New residential growth would occur in existing cities and towns, not in the farmlands.

The November outcome could have farreaching effects in Sonoma and serve as a model for other Bay Area counties in protecting their vanishing farm belt, a rich green heritage too often short-sightedly squandered.

Photo: At Twin Hills Ranch, grower Darrel Hurst weighs merits of two good apples

Photo: Farm wives, in baseball hats and gingham, boost homegrown crop with smiles and graphics at Gravenstein Apple Fair

Photo: Red stripes on yellow or greenish background identify the Gravenstein

Photo: Apple country centers around Sebastopol, about 10 miles west of U.S. 101 on State 116

Photo: Apple country now: horse and surrey take slow, tuneful jaunt from orchard to orchard. Rig and driver ($35 per hour) are from Carriage Charter, (707) 823-7083

Photo: The future? Housing developments compete with apple trees for agricultural land, as here, on Luther Burbank's former Sebastopol farm. See discussion on page 38

Photo: Shaded areas show where Sebastopol orchards are; in early April, you'll see apple blossoms there. Black apples, keyed to listings below, show where to buy apples now

A back-roads search for fresh Gravensteins

These ranches and fruit stands sell fresh Gravenstein apples this month. Other services or products are noted in listings.

1. Kozlowski Farms, 5566 Gravenstein Highway N. Cider, raspberries, vinegars, jams. Also a mail-order source.

2. Larson's Keneko Farm, 8500 Templeman Rd. Judice, berries, vegetables, eggs, poultry.

3. El Molino Apple Farm, 9144 Ross Station Rd. Vegetables.

4. Urmann Ranch, 4950 Ross Rd.

5. Marcucci Farms, 4940 Ross Rd. Juice, dried apples, jams, gift packs, fruits, nuts.

6. Hilltop Fruit Stand, 4550 Gravenstein Highway N. Other produce.

7. Where the Apple Meets the Eye, 4780 Ross Rd. Lamb, wool. Picnic area.

8. Apple Mack's, 4434 Vine Hill Rd. Juice.

9. Apple Blossom Ranch, 4050 Vine Hill Rd.

10. D'Agati's Fruit Stand, 4020 Vine Hill Rd. Other fruit.

11. Allen Ranch, 11575 Green Valley Rd.

12. Fletcher Ranch, 3944 Green Valley School Rd.

13. Paul Orchards, 3561 Gravenstein Highway N. Juice, cider, other produce.

14. Walker Apples, Upp Rd. Old varieties.

15. Hallberg Orchards, 2500 Gravenstein Highway N. Juice, cider.

16. Caswell Winter Creek Farms, 13207 Dupont Rd. Other produce, wine.

u7. Redwood Orchards, 11500 Graton Rd.

18. Stipinovich Ranch, 9950 O'Connell Rd. You-pick or they-pick. Picnic site.

19. Mill Station Ranch, 9707 Mill Station Rd. Honey.

20. Roberts Ranch, 1521 Barlow Lane.

21. Fogelman Family Farm, 8417 Peachland Ave. You-pick or they-pick.

22. Andy's Fruit Basket, 1691 Gravenstein Highway N. Other produce, wine.

23. Ratzlaff Ranch, 13128 Occidental Rd. Juice, pears.

24. Ramondo Ranch, 12695 Occidental Rd.

25. Hatch Ranch, 12154 Occidental Rd.

26. Me Gusta Organic Farm, 965 Martin Lane. Juice, berries, pork, goats, chevre.

27. Ping Quaw Orchard, 8300 Candy Apple Lane. Other produce.

28. Bill's Farm Basket, 10315 Bodega Highway. Juice, other produce.

29. The Apple Tree, 10055 Bodega Highway. Juice, apple butter, jams, honey.

30. Howson's U-Pick Orchard, 1224 Sexton Rd. Organic. Juice, other fruit. Picnic site.

31. Vista del Valle Ranch, 1045 Sexton Rd. You-pick or they-pick. Juice. Tables.

32. De Voto Orchards, 1165 Gold Ridge Rd.

33. Twin Hill Ranch, 1689 Pleasant Hill Rd. You-pick or they-pick. Juice, cider, dried apples, baked goods, apple firewood. Picnic and play areas.

34. Voge Ten-Fruit Ranch, 1430 Holman Lane. You-pick or they-pick. Other produce.

35. Frank's Apple Stand, 1794 Gravenstein Highway S. Cider, other produce, eggs.

36. The Red Shed, 2195 Pleasant Hill Rd. Juice.

37. Marshall Apple Farm, 8030 Kennedy Rd.

38. Stokes Ranch, 1910 Schaeffer Rd. Pears.

39. Buena Vista Orchard, 1200 Cunningham Rd. You-pick or they-pick. Cider.

Photo: Lunch at Russian River Vineyards (5700 Gravenstein Highway N.) brings Gravenstein wine, quiche. Towers echo form of no-longer-used hop kilns nearby
COPYRIGHT 1984 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Aug 1, 1984
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