Nana Mae Organics: Grown and made in Sonoma County

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By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

Kenwood couple Paul and Kendra Kolling, owners of Nana Mae Organics, dry-farm more than 300 acres of certified organic Sonoma County apple orchards from Guerneville in the north to Sebastopol in the south.

They pick each apple at the peak of maturity, ending up with a tasting palate similar to a winemaker's. First come the Gravensteins in late July, followed in succession by more than 20 other apple varieties, including Jonathans and Rhode Island Greenings. The season closes in late September with the Rome Beauty.

This bounty is used to produce an award-winning line of products, such as their 100% Gravenstein Apple Juice and Mid-Season Heirloom Apple Sauce, that reflect apple variety and Sonoma County terroir.

Paul grew up in Kenwood and is a fourth-generation California farmer who took a small initial detour. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in Geoscience Engineering, he settled into an engineering job before realizing he wasn't cut out for the 9-5 world.

He wanted to work outdoors, and farming was in his blood. So he bought an orchard in Sebastopol. Most of the orchards Kolling farms are owned by others, with properties ranging in size from half an acre to 20 acres.

"The largest piece I used to farm was 50 acres," he said, "but that's now gone to grapes. The big orchards are slowly dwindling."

In 1993, after making apple products with different partners and under different names, Paul decided to strike out on his own.

He named his new apple products company after his grandmother, Nana Mae, "who was my inspiration. I used to work in the kitchen with her as a child, and I cherish those memories." A 1910 photo of 16-year-old Nana Mae graces the company's label.

Paul met Kendra in the mid-1990s at the Marin Farmers Market. "He was my local apple farmer," Kendra said. "One day, instead of getting a bag of apples, I bagged the farmer. He courted me in the orchards of Sebastopol, where I fell in love not only with him, but with Sonoma County."

Married for nearly 15 years, the couple has four children, all of whom learned to "climb ladders and prune fruit trees as soon as they could walk."

But competition from out-of-region and out-of-state growers recently has cut profit margins to the bone.

Nana Mae products are sustainably nurtured and organically grown in Sonoma County orchards and bear the label "Grown in Sonoma County." In the markets they compete against less expensive products labeled "Made in Sonoma County."

"There's a huge difference," Kendra said. "People truck cheap apples here from other growing areas, make them into apple juice, slap a label on that says 'Made in Sonoma County' and price their products lower than ours. Many customers in the store just assume they're buying juice made from Sonoma apples."

Added Paul: "At this time of year there are no home-grown apples to be had in Sonoma County. But apple juice is being made at a Sonoma County production facility all the same, complete with a 'Made in Sonoma County' label."

The Kollings are working with groups like the Slow Food Russian River Convivium toward the day when, in order to carry the words "Sonoma County," apple products must meet legally-mandated label requirements just as wines do.

According to the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, a wine must contain at least 75% of grapes grown in the county if it wants to carry "Sonoma County" on the front label.

"Why shouldn't apples have to meet that standard?" Paul asked. "After all, Sonoma County has one of the finest terroirs in the world for growing apples. Grape growers have managed to drive that same point home with their grapes, and we need to do it with apples."

In the meantime, if Nana Mae Organics is to remain alive as a viable family business, it needs to expand and become better known. The Kollings have begun conversations with potential investors and are looking at new markets such as craft fermented sodas and hard cider.

"I see this as a natural growth for our brand," Kendra said. Formerly in public relations with the Chalone Wine Group, today she helps run Nana Mae Organics and also maintains her own business, The Farmer's Wife.

"It's a multi-faceted farm-to-table food company," she said. "It's basically me and one employee who helps out, sometimes the kids. I have a pop-up at the Marin County Market, I cater events. I specialize in simple seasonal eats." Kendra has also applied for a space in Sonoma's Tuesday night Farmers Market.

Nana Mae Organics is also considering taking space in The Barlow. A former apple factory in downtown Sebastopol, it's being converted into a business community that features fine regional products and the artisans who create them.

"It's poised to be the regional center for art and food," said Kendra. "We'd sell our ciders, we'd have a kitchen where we make chutneys and preserves. We'd have pie-baking and canning workshops. People could get fresh-pressed vegetable juices and smoothies, and absolutely outrageous grilled-cheese sandwiches."

And on the wall would be Kendra's favorite quote about apples, which happens to be from Jane Austen: "Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness."

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