Late one August in a bygone century, I bought four boxes of Gravenstein apples from a farmer in Sebastopol, borrowed a flimsy plastic juicer from a friend's mom and madly mashed the apples through the poor machine for two days straight. I'd been inspired to make cider after a semester in England, where the law allowed me to buy two-liter bottles of Strongbow at the grocery, despite the local opinion that getting pissed on cider was best left behind in one's teens.
My sense of timing was typical. I had launched a manic, doomed project just before I transferred away to college, and then I ceded my "lead" in artisanal cider production, such as it was, to future enthusiasts. More recently, the style of dry, sour, funky-smelling beverage that I ended up with—and passed on to friends (later, I learned that the sloshing five-gallon carboy had made the rounds from party to party over the remainder of that year)—has become an exciting craft beverage category. These three local ciders were made with 50 percent or more Sonoma County Gravenstein apples.
Specific Gravity 2013 Gravenstein Cider ($14/750ml) The strongly sour, smoky, Band-Aid characters to the fermenting apple aroma announce that this is something different—more meaty than sweet, with cinnamon notes spicing up a tangy, lingering finish. Served chilled, this would be more thirst-quenching than a sweet drink after a long day's laying up hay. (6.8 percent abv)
Devoto Save the Gravenstein Cider ($12.99/750ml) Somewhat more frizzante than the near-still Specific Gravity, this is distinctly fruitier, with a suggestion of bubblegum and no-oak Chardonnay. Dryish, a bit sour, with light flavors of apple and pear, this one's the "Champagne of ciders" among this lineup, and maybe less of a leap away from the more familiar style. (6.9 percent abv)
Tilted Shed 2013 Graviva! Semidry Cider ($9/375ml) The most complex and carbonated of the lot. Somewhere in between a sour, Berliner Weisse beer and a bretty Roussanne wine, this cider, topped with a bottle-cap closure, displays a darker gold hue, hints of SweeTarts or crushed Flintstones vitamins and overripe apples with Band-Aids—but that may be too many trademarked names for one little artisanal cider, particularly since, presumably, it's more like the farmhouse cider of your great-great-grandmother's day than the brand-name, sweet and sparkling ciders of today. Anyway, with earthy apricot fruit flavors in the mouth-filling, bubbly, dry palate, for my tastes it's also much more enjoyable. (8 percent abv)
Curiously enough, it may be thirst-slaking alcoholic beverages like these that, indeed, save the Gravenstein from the advance of the wine grape.