The Gravenstein Highway, which meanders from the Russian River down through Forestville, Sebastopol and Cotati, is named for the Gravenstein apple. Thousands of acres of orchards once covered the area, and the “Grav” was a mainstay of the local economy. Apples were sold fresh and processed at dozens of plants into applesauce, vinegar and cider.
The Gravenstein is said to have been first propagated at Grafenstein Castle in Denmark in the 17th century. Our first Gravensteins crossed the Pacific in the early 19th century as cuttings aboard a Russian sailing ship. Planted at the Fort Ross colony, they grew into orchards that bore fruit for more than a century.
Gravensteins probably arrived in Sonoma County more than once. Long before the Russians got here, they were being grown on the east coast, particularly Nova Scotia. Some pioneers carried cuttings of fruit trees in their covered wagons on the westward trek, and the Grav may also have traveled here by steam train.
Nathaniel Griffith has been called Grandfather of the Gravenstein. On the advice of Luther Burbank, he planted Sebastopol’s first Gravenstein orchard in 1890. Burbank himself noted that the Grav didn’t thrive elsewhere in California, saying that “Sonoma County seems to be its home.” Others followed Griffith’s lead; by the 1930s there were about 25 square miles of Gravensteins and demand was huge.
“Of the Gravenstein it is hard to speak in mere prose,” wrote Edward Bunyard, a well-known food writer of that era. “So distinct in flavour is it . . . so full of juice and scented with the very attar of apple. This aroma comes out on the oily skin and remains on the fingers despite many washings, bringing to mind the autumnal orchard in mellow sunlight.”
Yet today only about 1 square mile of commercial orchards survive. There are several reasons — Gravensteins don’t transport and keep as well das other varieties; and for decades, apples have been giving way to grapes, a crop worth up to 10 times as much per ton.
But everything comes round. As the Gravenstein found a home here after circling the globe in both directions, it is now, in a way, returning to its roots.
Recognizing the threat, the Slow Food movement established the Gravenstein Apple Presidium, the first such “Presidia” in California. Presidia is Latin for “fortress,” a designation meant to defend the Gravenstein’s future by increasing awareness and demand for the endangered fruit, protecting a sustainably produced crop that represents a sense of place.
It’s a castle for an apple from a castle.
Contact Glen Ellen-based historical ecologist Arthur Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org.