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Like the French prune and the white leghorn chicken, the Gravenstein apple is an agricultural icon in Sonoma County.

There was a time when this delicate late-summer apple -- reaching its flavor peak just about now -- was the focus of West County orchardists and the primary reason for a highly profitable apple-processing industry in and around Sebastopol.

A recent marriage between the fast-disappearing Gravenstein and the snail-paced slow-food movement may be the salvation of the few growers who have stayed with the fruit that both grandmotherly cooks and professional chefs avow makes the best pies and the best sauce of any apple grown anywhere.

All apples are under siege now that this is "Wine Country" as the local industry fades and the trees give away to vines.

Gravensteins, once the star of our orchards, have been fighting for a market niche in recent years against tough competition from sturdier varieties that ship better and last longer -- even if they don't taste as good.

Slow-food types have organized a cadre of Bay Area chefs and bakers to feature Gravensteins in salads, entrees and desserts through the harvest season. With the slow-foodies' determination, a good PR campaign and a lot of luck, it can work.

The origins of this apple are the stuff of legend. Some say it's a German apple, some say it's Danish. The oft-repeated legend has a Danish prince bringing an apple called Villa Blanc home from Italy in the 1600s to plant near his castle in the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein, which was sometimes German, sometimes Polish, sometimes Danish, depending on the political climate of Northern Europe.

The ties between the Russian and German royal families in the late 18th and early 19th centuries probably accounted for the Russian American Trading Co.'s choice of the Gravenstein as the variety to carry to their coastal outpost when Fort Ross was built in 1812. The trees, the first apples in Northern California, were planted in a hillside orchard within a mile of the coastal compound, along with pears, peaches, cherries and quince. William Benitz, who bought the fort when the Russians left in the 1840s, tended the trees, as did George Washington Call, who owned it from 1873 until the state of California bought it for a historical park in the early 1900s. Call shipped Gravensteins to market in San Francisco by schooner.

We get a first-person account of the orchard from the memoir of one of Call's daughters, Laura Call Carr. In "My Life at Fort Ross 1877-1907," she writes:

"Our favorite was from the trees planted by the Russians, an early, very juicy, striped apple, which we later learned was a Gravenstein. The cows and hogs ate those that fell from the trees. Some of the cows would shake the trees when they could reach the limbs. The men would later gather the apples, and they were stored on shelves in a cool dark building built for that purpose. We had apples until April."

The old trees are still there, near the state historical park, lovingly tended by volunteers.

After the influx of settlers to the North Coast prompted by the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, more than one immigrant farmer undoubtedly brought scions from trees supplied by German (and/or Danish) immigrants who settled in the Eastern United States. Historians tell us that a man named William J. (Joe) Hunt, who would play a prominent role in the ascendancy of the Gravenstein, planted several trees in 1869 in the small orchard northwest of Sebastopol where he and his sons were attempting to build a better dehydrator.

But it was an Iowa farm boy named Nathaniel Griffith, who came West to the Nevada silver mines in the 1870s, who would lead the Gravenstein to prominence and earn his way into the local histories as "The Grandfather of the Gravenstein."

Griffith came to Sonoma County in 1883 and, according to his neighbors, bought 85 acres of "brush and stump land" in the Gold Ridge District on Laguna Road.

Whether or not he set out to prove that Gold Ridge soil was highly suited for apple cultivation, that is what he accomplished. But some of the credit must go to that Santa Rosa nurseryman named Luther Burbank, who worked with Griffith to determine what variety would grow best.

Griffith had ordered scions of Gravensteins from a Wisconsin orchardist and soon they were the only trees in his orchard. Burbank, too, was enthusiastic about the flavor of this fruit.

And Joe Hunt's experiments, with his sons, had proved that no apple dried better or retained its flavor better when dried, than the Grav.

(The Hunts' new dehydrator installed next to the railroad tracks in Santa Rosa proved to be successful, not only for apples but for tomatoes, which prompted an expansion to the Sacramento Valley in 1902 and the beginning of an international food concern which we still know today as Hunt's.)

Meanwhile, Burbank planted 1,800 trees of his own on his experimental farm just west of Sebastopol.

Understand that, by the turn of the 20th century, Burbank was a force to be reckoned with and his pronouncements about Gravs undoubtedly spurred more plantings. What he said was:

"The Gravenstein has proven to be the money-winner in Sonoma County," which he described as "the most comfortable home for this apple which is the best quality of all known apples. If the Gravenstein could be had through the year, no other apple would need be grown." (One wonders if he may have added, under his breath, that even he, for all his plant wizardry, couldn't make a better apple.)

So, with good soil and sound advice from an expert and the technology to preserve the fruit, Gravensteins took hold. War-ravaged Europe, following World War I, provided the first substantial market for dried fruit and the county's two leading tree crops, Gravensteins and French prunes, benefited enormously, helping to lead the county to rank eighth in the nation in agricultural production in 1920. (Chickens, dairy cows and hops did their share as well.)

In the early years, profitable berry production went hand in hand with apples as berries were planted between the rows in the young orchards until the trees began to bear fruit.

In the middle years of the 20th century, apple-processing plants blossomed like the trees themselves in the Sebastopol area. In 1958, agricultural advisers counted nearly 40 apple plants in the area, including dehydrators, applesauce canneries, juice and cider and vinegar processing plants and packing sheds. Following Griffith, who died in 1937, there was R.E. Oehlmann, founder of Manzana Products, the Hallberg and Barlow families, Frei Brothers, Will Hotle, Silveira and O'Connell -- all of them growers as well as processors. Owners of smaller orchards sold to the Sebastopol Apple Growers Union. SAGU had two plants, one in Sebastopol and one at Molino Corners, where Occidental Road crosses 116.

There was also, for a time, Speas distillery, which produced apple brandy, known familiarly as applejack.

But the market for dried fruit was diminishing with the competition from other states, and even from foreign countries. The Gravenstein's greatest attribute is its flavor, even when dried. But it doesn't pack or ship or keep well. Jet freight brought Granny Smiths and other fresh apples in winter from places such as New Zealand, where summer harvests were under way. By way of comparison: In 1958, when the dried apple industry that set the Gravenstein on its way to success was just beginning to slow, there were 5,449 acres of Gravensteins in the county. Last year there were 875.

So now Gravenstein growers will rely on the so-called "locavores," the new wave of customers who believe in eating what is grown in their own regions, who will pay to keep the flavor intact, who have subscribed to the doctrine that sustainable farming is necessary to sustain a comfortable culture.

Slow food and the Gravenstein -- a marriage made in heaven?