The Gravenstein apple is not a luxury good. It's ornery. Its stems never grow more than an inch, forcing many an unripe apple off the branch as it competes for space. It's ugly. It bruises easily, condemning many to the toss pile before they even hit the market. And it's tart. Gravensteins do not invite that big old bite with that big old crunch; rather, they're usually saved for baking and sauces, where sugar can blunt them.
So says Ken Ratzlaff, owner of Ratzlaff Ranch and a lifelong apple juice producer. Standing next to a stubby Gravenstein tree, his head barely shaded by the gnarled branches, he pragmatically explains the idiosyncrasies of a fruit that has become a regional sensation. The generators that fuel his gigantic refrigeration room operate at a soft roar, rendering his low-toned voice almost inaudible. When asked why he would choose to farm such a prickly orb, he says, after a long pause, "Guess you could say I had no choice."
Apples are in Ratzlaff's blood. His grandfather bought the ranch property for apple orchards and berries around 1924, and Ratzlaff himself took the reins from his father in 1968. Accompanied by a slight shrug and a small twist of his mouth, his response suggests that it takes a certain kind to farm this apple.
It didn't used to be that way. Once dripping from branches, the Gravenstein, more affectionately known as the "Grav," experienced highs in the late 1940s and early '50s that are no longer fathomable today. The dried fruit was sold to the military in vast amounts, and San Francisco became a marketing destination. Times were good.
Comparing the 900 acres currently devoted to Gravs with the 10,000 acres the fruit claimed in its heyday is sobering, to say the least. But Sebastopol historian Evelyn McClure says spikes in apple production are not uncommon. "It goes in cycles with our economy," she says, citing a disinterest in the apple that coincided with a recession after WWI. "[T]hey started ripping out the orchards."
The graphic uprooting of seemingly harmless trees is exactly how the apple has won the recognition and support of regional actors in recent years. Slow Food Russian River, a chapter of Slow Food International, is devoted to the promotion of eating seasonally and protecting the agrarian culture of locally grown food. For Paula Shatkin, one of the group's organizers, the annihilation of apple orchards is precisely what prompted her to act in its defense.
"Around eight years ago, everywhere you went, there was an apple orchard getting chopped down and made into a vineyard," she says. She and other group members documented the apple's cultural importance to Sebastopol, snapping photos of street signs and storefronts bearing its name in the hopes of establishing the fruit as a Presidium food by Slow Food International terms. (Entrance into Slow Food's Presidia program is the international movement's highest honor, a way of recognizing foods that contribute significantly to the biodiversity and heritage of a local culture.)
But a name is only a name. The fruit cannot hope to gain acreage or patronage with an increase in recognition alone, as Shatkin is deeply aware. "We have been really trying to get [the farmers] to work together as a group," she says. Because farmers are often forced to charge prices lower than the cost of producing the apples, many find the business unprofitable. Shatkin and the other members of Slow Food Russian River have attempted to help them agree on a feasible price and to stick with it, a feat that requires the cooperation of all area growers. Shatkin sees the group's role as one that is both practical and supportive. "We want to say to the farmers, 'You have a product that is worth something.'"
The Ratzlaff Ranch has all the appearances of a proper Grav sanctuary, a testament to the once-forgotten-but-now-eternally-remembered victim of monoculture in Sonoma County. Its sleepy apple orchards and tucked-away pressing facilities harbor Rome Beauty and Golden Delicious trees in addition to Gravenstein, as well as thousands of gallons of apple juice. Ratzlaff produces a bottle to sample. Bee-buzzing nature, sweet juice and the fresh country air—who could ask for anything more?
Ratzlaff quickly dispels all poetry. "It's questionable whether or not you can really make a living out of them." Standing under the partial shade of a stubby Gravenstein tree, he recites the costs involved with producing and shipping the fruit. "The box itself is almost $2 in cardboard," he says, and together with postage, the total cost to ship a box of Gravensteins is $11&–$12. Not at all worth it when boxes of apples from Washington sell for $10 per box, not counting the challenges Ratzlaff faces in keeping deer snouts out of his business.
"The main orchard is open to the deer, and they come in every day and chew on them. I can buy [the apples] almost cheaper than I could raise them, so I haven't been replacing the trees like I should," he says. Ratzlaff suspects that an increase in acreage devoted to vineyards, which are often fenced off and inaccessible to the deer, is behind the animal's newfound aggression.
While Ratzlaff's concerns about the industry are not specific to Gravenstein apples, they signal doleful circumstances for apple farmers that make the heritage piece's survival a little more bleak. And compounding it is the threat that cheap apple concentrate from China presents to producers and processors.
"If they drag their prices down over there, they can bring it in here so cheap that the processors can't afford to make it. So they either don't make it or they drop the price of apples. And usually they drop the price of apples," Ratzlaff says with a deadpan expression. With what seems like literally all the odds against the Gravenstein, does Ratzlaff see the fruit becoming obsolete one day?
"I don't see them dying out," he says. "It's not going to be as big as it used to be. But there are enough people around that know what a Gravenstein is, so there'll still be a demand for it." As Ratzlaff describes it, "the best apple around" isn't going anywhere for a while.
Help celebrate this regional fruit at the Gravenstein Apple Festival, Saturday&–Sunday, Aug. 14&–15. Ragle Ranch Park, 500 Ragle Road, Sebastopol. Saturday, 10am to 6pm; Sunday, 10am to 5pm. $5&–$12. 707.837.8337.