The golden days of August are a time of great abundance in California’s Sonoma County. Farmers markets and home gardens alike are bursting with ripe tomatoes, squash, and peppers. The late summer air around the small town of Sebastopol is perfumed with one of the county’s historic bounties, Gravenstein apples, their harvest celebrated there for more than 100 years. It’s an old apple, and as is the case with most old apples, its origins are a little muddled. Did it come from Italy, Denmark, or Germany and how did it find itself on the other side of the earth in California?

A very early, and perhaps the first written description of the Gravenstein apple was made by Christian C. L. Hirschfeld (1742-1794), a hugely influential writer on gardens and garden design. In volume 1 of his Handbuch der Fruchtbaumzucht (1788) Hirschfeld writes that though the apple originated in Italy it took its name from an estate held by the Dukes of Augustenburg, a lesser branch of the House of Oldenburg. (Other branches sprouted such notables as the late Prince Philip and Catherine the Great.) It was a summer residence in Gråsten (Gravenstein in German) near Sønderborg, which is now firmly in Denmark. During the 18th, though, this part of Jutland was not in Denmark proper, but was a separate duchy in the Holy Roman Empire, which may account for some of the confusion as to whether the apple arose in Denmark or Germany.

Hirschfeld knew the grounds around the castle for he wrote a very detailed description of them in 1782. He does not mention seeing any orchards, though there were pockets of fruit trees here and there. That same year, though, Hirschfeld also wrote about a nursery business on the island of Als, likewise near Sønderborg, owned and run by the Vothmanns. It is from the 1802 writings of Nicolai Vothmann, grandson of the nursery’s founder, that we get a few more details. From 1689, Peter Vothmann (1666-1731) was a gardener at a ducal estate on Als owned by the von Schleswig-Holstein-Sønderborg-Augustenburg family. Vothmann leased a plot of his employer’s land in 1695 to start a nursery, the first in the area. Beginning with kitchen vegetables, he soon was grafting and selling fruit trees, borrowing money to buy the land in the late 1720s. The loan was still outstanding when he died in 1731 leaving his second wife Maria, née Thun (1678-1765), struggling keep the business afloat.

As it happens, Peter Vothmann’s son Hans Peter (1712-1797) had just begun a horticultural apprenticeship at the Gravenstein estate. According to Nicolai, Hans Peter’s son, there was a single tree in the gardens “which had been brought there from Italy several years ago…called Ville Blanc1,” which was known for it’s excellent flavor. The fact that it bore enough fruit to have developed a reputation suggests that it had been there a while, but how it got there and when Nicolai does not say. Wanting to help his mother, Hans Peter took as many scions from this tree as he could, grafting them to seedling rootstock in the family nursery and selling the results. Eventually he returned to Als and took over the nursery. According to Nicolai, who joined the business after the death of his brother Johann Georg (1755-1788), Hans Peter originally kept the name Ville Blanc, but eventually started calling the apple Gravensteiner so that it would not be confused with another apple, Caville Blanc, which he thought was similar, though not as good.

It is curious that this supposedly Italian apple, whether it arrived in Sønderborg as a single grafted tree, scion, or seed, had a French name. Perhaps this is why some writers over the years have suggested it originated in Savoy in the western Alps. This historic region is now divided by the French-Italian border and, as is common with border areas, changed hands many times due to its strategic value. One of its common historic languages was French.

The Vothmann nursery shipped trees throughout Northern Europe, as far away as Norway and St. Petersburg, according to Hirschfeld. It was being grown in Scotland and England by the early 1820s, and New York state by 1829, imported by a German nurseryman named C. Knudson, beginning its journey to the western frontier. At this point in American history the “western frontier” meant the states of Indiana and Iowa, what we now think of as the middle. That frontier line was rapidly evolving, however, as Anglo-European settlement pushed inexorably toward North America’s Pacific coast, taking its fruit culture with it. 

There are two competing stories about Gravestein’s eventual arrival in northern California. The first involves a group of Russians who, in 1812, established a fur trapping and provisioning settlement called Fort Ross on the coast of what would become Sonoma County. The existing records show that apples were first planted there in 1820 obtained from a shipment of trees brought in from the nearby Spanish town of Monterey. It is hard to imagine that these were anything but seedling trees and there is nothing in the documentary record to suggest otherwise. There seem to have been a couple of old Gravenstein trees growing in the remnants of the Russian’s orchard by the 1920s, but the property had changed hands several times in the ensuing years and those owners also planted orchards. Named, and therefore grafted, varieties don’t appear in the record until the 1870s.

A much more likely scenario is that the apple came west with the nurseryman Henderson Lewelling, or Luellling as he spelled it once he got to the west coast (1809-1878). A fascinating character, Luelling was born in Randolph County, North Carolina. It was a rugged and rocky place where the soils were largely played out by the time his family moved to the newly opened up territory of Indiana in 1822. He started his first nursery there. A devout Quaker and abolitionist, Luelling moved on to the new town of Salem, Iowa in 1837, along with this brother John and their growing families, both to start an expanded nursery business and participate in the Underground Railroad, sheltering enslaved people escaping from the nearby slave-state, Missouri. Gravenstein was probably one of the apples they grafted and sold for Luelling made regular trips to east coast nurseries, particularly the one owned by the Prince family on Long Island, New York, where he could access scionwood for the latest most popular fruit varieties. The Prince nursery started listing Gravenstein for sale some time between 1833 and 1837.

Apparently long fascinated with seeing the farthest western part of the continent, in 1847 Luelling made the decision to uproot his family once again and head for the Oregon Territories. The story of his journey as told by David Diamond in Migrations: Henderson Luelling and the Cultivated Apple, 1822-1854 (2004) makes for compelling reading, particularly if one has spent any time hiking in the still fiercely wild and beautiful areas they traversed. They built a wagon outfitted with soil-filled boxes just to transport the some 700 plants they took with them–apples, pears, cherries, and grapes, popular varieties that Luelling knew would sell–pulled by a team of six oxen. Setting out in April, 1847 it took them a full eight months to make the trip of some 2,600 miles from Salem to the Oregon Trail’s end near modern day Portland. Many families from the area went with them; one third died en route. They forded numerous rivers and creeks, crossed grassy prairie lands and arid alkali pans. They climbed and descended steep ridges, extra oxen pulling on the uphills and the team hitched to the backs of the wagons on the downhills to prevent them from careening away and crashing at the bottom. Half of the plants died from killing frosts as they crossed the Rocky Mountains in mid-July. Luelling’s wife, Elizabeth, spent the entire journey pregnant, giving birth to their ninth child about two weeks after their arrival in Oregon.

Once arriving at their destination it took several more months before Luelling found and bought property he thought suitable, rejecting the easy grasslands of the Willamette Valley for a forested site on the east bank of the Willamette River near Johnson Creek. There was an existing cabin, but not much cleared land for an orchard–it took two months to clear one acre of the old growth trees and finally get his young fruit trees into solid ground. Gravenstein, Yellow Newtown Pippin, and Esopus Spitzenburg were among them, according to a list provided by Luelling’s son Alfred, for most of the apples had survived the journey. They had spent an entire season, from flowering to dormancy, in that rolling wagon, now finding a completely new home in Oregon’s rich soil. There was a mad scramble to find or plant seedlings that could be used as rootstocks, but several years later Luelling or his partner, William Meek, were making periodic trips through Oregon and southern Washington with a nursery wagon filled with trees ready for planting. 

Luelling probably already had his eye on the California market from the beginning, though there still weren’t that many settlers living there. That changed pretty quickly when gold was discovered in 1849, setting off a stampede of prospectors, miners, and the myriad of other newcomers that set up businesses to support them. John and Seth Luelling, who had by now joined his brothers in the Oregon enterprise, even tried their hand at panning for gold, though they didn’t find much. They did, however, start another nursery orchard in 1850/51 on land in the mountainous gold fields west of Sacramento owned by Enos Mendenhall, another one of the Salem Quakers that had traveled west with the Luelllings. This nursery orchard was, no doubt, the source of the grafted trees sold by Sacramento auctioneer J.B. Stark in March of 1854, the first mention of Gravenstein’s existence in California. Captain Joseph Aram of San Jose, who had arrived in California in 1846 and some years later started the first nursery in Santa Clara County, exhibited Gravensteins at the state fair of 1856. J.W. Osborn showed Gravensteins from his Napa Valley orchard at the state fair of 1858. An early mention of Gravensteins in Sonoma County came in January 1862 when the J.L. Mock nursery included it in an ad with trees for sale in the Petaluma Argus. And so plantings of Gravenstein spread until by the early 20th century is was one of the most widely planted varieties in Sonoma County.

Gravenstein seems to have always had a host of devoted fans. “The Gravensteiner is unequivocally the king among the apples,” wrote Hirschfeld, “[i]t is also everywhere . . . [t]he shape is Caville-like, yellow in color, bright red on the sunny side, sprinkled with red stains [stripes] . . .The smell is sublime and melon-like; the flesh is very white, firm, rich, and has a lovely taste . . .The tree of this glorious apple grows very quickly and bears plentifully.” Other pomologists were likewise enthusiastic. “This apple is equally useful for the table and other purposes,” wrote William Kendrick in 1833.  ‘[I]t not only affords excellent cider, but also when dry a very palatable dish” (The New American Orchardist)

Though it has chiefly been used as a processing apple in the U.S.–dried, in sauce, for pies–a number of west coast cidermakers have recently embraced Gravenstein’s cidermaking potential. One might expect Gravenstein ciders to be all low tannin, but several in this group had pleasant levels of astringency and fuller body (Dragon’s Head, Tilted Shed, Humboldt Cider). Their most common feature was flavors of various tart citrus fruits, sometimes zest and other times juice. Several of the examples I tried had been in the cellar a while and had suffered for it (they are not included here), suggesting that Gravenstein ciders may be best consumed while fairly young and still showing their bright, zesty fruit character.

Bauman’s Cider Company, Gervais, OR – dry; apple skin, pear skin, lime juice, lemon rind, green apple, barely ripe peach, honeydew melon; sparkling; 2020; 6% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Vashon Island, WA – dry; quince, tart orange juice, lime juice, coriander, barely ripe nectarine, green herbs; sparkling; 2018; 6.9% ABV

Hidden Star Orchards, Camino, CA – semi-dry; butterscotch, lime zest, nectarine, plum skin, mandarin orange; sparkling; 2017(?); 6.9% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA, Inclinado Espumante – dry; grapefruit zest, dried herbs, tart apple, candied citrus peel, lightly floral, VA; sparkling; 2020; 8% ABV

Wildcraft Ciderworks, Eugene, OR – dry; dried twigs, straw, lime juice, apple skin, VA; sparkling; 2020; 6.8% ABV

Humboldt Cider Company, Eureka, CA – semi-dry; cooked apple, lemon zest, nectarine, quince, hay; sparkling; 2020; 7% ABV

Gopher Glen, San Luis Obispo, CA – dry; plum skin, lime, gooseberry, coriander, slight VA; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV

  1. Vothmann, N., Some Remarks About Fruit Culture on Als, Schleswig-Holsteinische Vaterlandskunde, 1802, pages 1 – 28

Local Values

The Instagram post wasn’t up long, but long enough for the poster, a newish local wine company, to crow about how “sustainable” they were because they were planning on composting the still productive apple trees they ripped out of the ground so that they could plant yet more Pinot Noir. As opposed to what? Burning them? In the midst of a fire-prone area in the middle of an historic drought? Their acolyte fans were thrilled, adding the suggestion that apple wood was great for smoking bacon. A savvy advocate of more agricultural diversity not less, and a cider drinker, called them on it though, rallying a host of like-minded others to join the fray. I doubt it changed any minds, but it was satisfying to see that post vanish within a matter of hours.

I get that sometimes agricultural land needs to be repurposed. Times and tastes change, and famers have to change, too, or get into some other line of work. Farmers need to be a pragmatic bunch; they have mortgages, medical bills, and kids to put through school just like the rest of us. They can’t just grow what they happen to like the best. Or, they can, but they may well pay an untenable financial price for it. In the end, they’ve got to grow something that we, the (sometimes fickle) public, want to buy.

As consumers, we are not always aware of the impact that our buying choices have on the folks that produce what we eat and drink. But whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a direct relationship between what we put in our shopping carts and livelihood of the person that made it or grew it. Here in Sonoma County, as in many other places, we do sort of get that for we have embraced the idea of farm-to-table restaurants and eating local. But doesn’t it then follow that we should embrace drinking local, too? That’s pretty easy to do here with wine, or course, but it turns out that it’s just as easy to do with cider if you’re willing to be even a little curious.

The last time I counted there were roughly 20 companies making cider in Sonoma County and the three counties that touch its borders. I’m guessing there are a few more by now. All of them use locally grown apples in at least some of their ciders. I’m willing to bet wherever you are you’ve got a local cidermaker or two, too. Are they using local fruit or trucking in random bulk juice from somewhere else? If you’re at a tasting room you can ask, of course. If not you might be able to tell by reading the label, and if it isn’t clear, ask someone at the store or restaurant that is carrying it. And if they don’t know, well, shouldn’t they? 

By picking a locally made cider, made from locally-grown apples, you are not just supporting a business run by one of your neighbors, though that’s a fabulous thing in and of itself. You are creating even bigger ripples through the local economy and showing that you value diversity–not just social diversity but also agricultural diversity. Which means a farmer will have just a little more encouragement to keep her apple trees in the ground.

Arkansas Black

There were trees as far as the eye could see, boughs heavy with apples ripening in the golden October sun–1.6 million trees growing on an estimated 40,000 acres at one count, 2.5 million a decade later. You would be forgiven for thinking this was New York’s Hudson Valley or southeastern Washington, but you would be wrong. In the year 1900 the place with more apple trees than anywhere in the United States was Benton County, Arkansas. In the year 1900 the place with more apple trees than anywhere in the United States was Benton County, Arkansas. Number two was Washington County just to the south. Now known more as the home of the international chain Walmart, Benton County, and it’s capital Bentonville, was once a powerhouse of apple growing and apple drying, as well as cider and apple butter. It was also the birthplace of Arkansas Black.

John Braithwaite (1811-1890) is the man credited with planting the seed that became Arkansas Black according to most of the sources one might trust to get this sort of thing right (Lee Calhoun, author of Old Southern Apples, for one). Just when this Englishman arrived in North America has been lost to history, but by the early 1840s he was in northwestern Arkansas, married to the widow Sarah (aka Sally) Dickson McCurdy (1819-1892), and starting a family. His choice of brides was a good one for the Dicksons were people of note, both in the new state of Arkansas (admitted to the union in 1836) and their home state of Tennessee. 

The head of the Dickson family was Joseph Dickson (1745-1825), captain in the Continental Army, rising to general by the Revolution’s end, and Sarah’s grandfather. A good example of the new American self-made man, he rose from obscurity to some prominence with his command of troops in the Battle of Kings Mountain in North Carolina. He went on to become a landowner and an important statesman, member of both the State Senate and the commission that founded the University of North Carolina. Serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1799 to 1801, his full-throated support of Thomas Jefferson gave Jefferson the Presidency in the tied election of 1800. Dickson would not have known at the time, or probably cared, but his support of Jefferson set up the circumstances that led Braithwaite to plant the fateful apple seed.

It started with the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of lands east of the Mississippi River from the French, which doubled the size of the newly-independent United States. It apparently didn’t concern the colonial powers involved (the Spanish were in on the discussions, too) that the land in question didn’t actually “belong” to the French but to others, the Tsalaguetiyi (Cherokee), Osage, and Kiickapoi (Kickapoo), just a few of the many peoples that had been living there for uncounted years before Europeans arrived. The deal was completed in 1803, the same year that Dickson moved himself, his family, and his 13 or so slaves to Rutherford County, Tennessee and began to accumulate expansive agricultural landholdings there, as well continuing his political career in the state House of Representatives (1807 – 1811).

After the French and Indian War of 1763, the British government had agreed that no new British settlements would be made east of the Appalachian Mountains, though that didn’t really stop people from moving there anyway. Now that there was a new government in charge it was full speed ahead for westward expansion, a key element in Jefferson’s vision of creating a prosperous yeoman-farmer underclass. It took some years to carve this enormous piece of land into more administratively manageable chunks, pushing out the native people by war or treaty along the way. Arkansas Territory was created in 1819. Sarah Dickson moved there with her first husband, Allen McCurdy (1807-1837), in the mid-1830s. (There were some 30,000 settlers and slaves counted in the 1830 territorial census.) Her father Robert and several uncles, brothers, and cousins soon followed suit, as did John Braithwaite.

We don’t know just why they chose Arkansas’ largely undeveloped northwest corner, but it was a common destination for people moving out of Tennessee. Perhaps it was just a longing to start someplace new, out from under the eye of a powerful patriarch. Perhaps it was the availability of virgin land. The Ozark Plateau, with its rough, hilly terrain, was unsuited to large scale cotton plantations, but good for orchards. The altitude kept the nights cool, and there was plenty of water. According to J.B. Lawton in his History of the Fruit Industry of Arkansas (1901), one of the Dicksons planted an orchard just outside of Bentonville (called Osage at the time) in 1836. John Braithwaite planted a nursery nearby in 1843 and was selling grafted trees to new settlers by the following year. This may have been on land owned by his father-in-law, Robert, as Braithwaite was only granted land of his own starting in the 1850s. Tree sales may also have been more of a side business, as he listed his occupation as stone mason in the 1850 census. The area was so cut off from most regular supplies that people were primarily planting to feed their families. The commercial fruit industry did not start up in earnest until the arrival of the railroad in 1881, finally giving the area easy access to nationwide markets.

Lawton writes that Arkansas Black was one of the ungrafted seedlings in Braithwaite’s 1843 nursery. James Alfred Marks, in a thesis paper written in 1911, says he was told by a Mr. Goree that Braithwaite discovered this seedling had fruited in 1865 when he returned home after a four year absence, a date supported by one of the many Dickson cousins (John Alvin) when interviewed around 1886. Braithwaite seems to have chosen to sit out the Civil War elsewhere (there are no Braithwaites listed as Confederate soldiers, though there are several Dicksons). That would seem to have been a very sensible decision since Bentonville was largely destroyed during the conflict as first one side then the other moved through burning buildings as they went.

From Dewey’s Specimen Book – 1870

Not a prolific bearer and prone to scab (though resistant to cedar rust) Arkansas Black was not an immediate hit with every pomologist that wrote about it. It does, however, have two attributes that has kept it in orchards from New York to Oregon. First is its rich, dark red, almost black color. S.A. Beech, in The Apples of New York (1905), describes it as “one of the most beautiful apples”. It also has extraordinary keeping ability, up to three and a half months in ordinary storage. The apple’s portrait appeared as early as 1870 in one of the specimen books created by D.M. Dewey for the nursery trade. It was one of the main varieties grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley by 1919, and though it does not command the acreage that it once did, Arkansas Black continues to be grown to some extent across the U.S.

It may be Arkansas Black’s heirloom status that prompts cidermakers to ferment it. One can most often find it in blends, though there are a handful of single variety ciders out there as well. It was a challenge to find a common theme in the ones I tried, though all were largely devoid of tannin (think crisp white wine here). Some had pronounced aromas and some were quite restrained; some had significant acidity, some not so much. Is this a reflection of terroir or cidermaker choices in the cellar?

Albemarle Ciderworks, North Garden, VA – lime zest, guava, honey, white flowers, peach, and apricot; sparkling; 2016; 7% ABV

Botanist and Barrel, Cedar Grove, NC – pear skin, green plum skin, gooseberry, lime zest, and lemongrass; sparkling; 2019; 7.5% ABV

Pen Druid Fermentation, Rappahannock, VA – green pear, pear skin, peach, lime juice, quince, mint, and eucalyptus; sparkling; 2019; 6.3% ABV

Gopher Glen, San Luis Obispo, CA – quince, guava, mandarin orange, tart apple skin, and pear juice; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV