While grapes may be Sonoma Valley's most enticing draw, another crop steals the spotlight late summer into fall. Apples—which were a popular crop here before vineyards supplanted many of the orchards—offer an alternative to wine-tasting, especially in August, when an annual festival celebrates the Gravenstein, the area's best-known variety.
Due to their soft skins, sweet-tart Gravensteins don't ship well, so the best place to taste them is at the source: plucked from a U-Pick farm, baked into a homemade pie, or fermented in a cider. This summer, rethink your typical wine-tasting trip, and time a visit to Sonoma County to coincide with the Gravenstein Apple Fair (August 17-18), or plan your own itinerary to pick, shop, sip, and taste your way through apple country.
U-Pick: Where to Pick Apples in Sonoma County
Most of the U-Pick farms are concentrated around Sebastopol and welcome visitors August through early winter, depending on the harvest. Plan on getting an early start to beat the crowds at Gabriel Farm (3175 Sullivan Rd., Sebastopol) one of the best-known U-Pick orchards in the area. Membership in the organic farm's CSA ($40 for a case of six Asian pear and apple juice half-gallon bottles) also comes with an invitation to pick as much fruit as you want throughout the growing season, with apples around $2.50 a pound. Just west of Sebastopol, family-run Apple-A-Day Ratzlaff Ranch (13128 Occidental Rd., Sebastopol, 707-823-0538) offers Sunday through Friday U-Pick at $2 a pound, but call ahead to ensure someone's at the ranch; you can also pick up fresh-pressed juice.
Buy: Where to Purchase Farm-Fresh Apples in Sonoma
If picking your own apples sounds a little too much like work, Hale's Apple Farm (1526 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Sebastopol) grows and sells more than three dozen varieties of apples from an orchard-adjacent stand right off Gravenstein Highway North. While most flock for the Gravs, keep an eye out for the Pink Pearls, which have pretty blush-hued flesh. Across the street, Andy's Market (1691 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Sebastopol) sells an extensive selection of local fruit and vegetables, plus an array of grocery items, fresh-baked goods, and wine and beer. Or head to Walker Apples (10955 Upp Rd., Graton)—open seven days a week from late July through December—for close to 30 varieties of apples that you're welcome to try before you buy. You'll often find three generations of the Walker family doing everything from the picking the apples to working the line.
Sip: Where to Drink Local Hard Cider in Sonoma
If you've got a taste for cider (the alcoholic kind), there's no shortage of Sonoma County businesses crafting suds that are infinitely more sippable than their syrupy-sweet mass-produced counterparts. Since 1993, family-owned Sebastopol cidery Ace California Cider (2064 Gravenstein Hwy N., Sebastopol) has independently produced its cider varieties, now totaling eleven, which you can taste on Fridays from 1pm to 6pm at its pub. Fill up a growler with one of the ciders, or try all eleven for $12. Horse and Plow (1272 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Sebastopol) offers both wine and cider flights to taste daily, plus plentiful outdoor shaded seating. The winery works exclusively with local orchards, fermenting as many varieties as possible separately before blending into unique bottles.
At Windsor's Tilted Shed Ciderworks (7761 Bell Rd., Windsor), husband-and-wife team Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli produce small-batch ciders and offer tasting and facility tours most Saturdays. Even if cider's generally not your jam, the barrel-aged and smoked varieties are known to convert the most reluctant of cider drinkers. And if it's in stock, make sure to try the Inclinado Sidra Natural, a still-bottled California take on a Basque sidra, which traditionally gets its carbonation from intricate pouring techniques. Next door, Sonoma Brothers Distilling (7759 Bell Rd., Windsor) deals in the boozier stuff—aka hard alcohol—but highlights the area's prized fruit with a seasonal apple brandy made from juice pressed at Tilted Shed and released around December.
If you're seeking something to suit teetotalers or tots, head to Luther Burbank Experiment Farm (7777 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol), where you can press your own apple juice on weekends through October 26, and take a self-guided tour of the grounds. Bring your own apples and plastic containers, and you can press up to 100 pounds of apples, or roughly five gallons of juice.
Taste: The Best Apple Pie + More Fall Dishes in Sonoma
At local institution Mom's Apple Pie (4550 Gravenstein Hwy. N. (Sebastopol), flaky-crusted pies beckon from the display case, and visitors come from miles away for their sugar rush. Welcome your impending diabetes by balling out on a whole pie (the only way you can score the Gravenstein version of the apple pie which is available from August to November), or exhibit some restraint by ordering a slice of rotating flavors, ranging from apple to chocolate pecan to coconut cream. While a sugar-free version of the apple pie is available, you're not at Mom's to count your calories.
A number of Sonoma Valley restaurants showcase seasonal ingredients and local farm produce, and you can bet apples will feature on the menu as temperatures cool. In Forestville, Backyard (566 Front St.) takes local dining seriously, with all of the fruit, vegetables, and proteins raised or sourced locally. While the menu changes frequently, apples often grace the menu in fall. You can also plan a visit for Thursday nights' family-style fried chicken dinners, Local Night's with live music on Mondays, or swing by for a picnic bag to go. Sebastopol's Gravenstein Grill (8050 Bodega Ave.) not only serves up apples in its name, but also in a pork-chop dish with Gravenstein cider glaze and a Gravenstein sour cocktail. Kick it all up a notch with Saturday all-day happy hour. And while best known for its seafood, counter service and drive-through sensibility (it is housed in a former Foster's Freeze), the new Handline (935 Gravenstein Ave.) highlights farm-fresh produce in the Weather Report section of its menu—alongside guilty pleasure fries and soft serve.
Celebrate Apple Season at Gravenstein Apple Fair
Dubbed "the sweetest little fair in Sonoma County," the Gravenstein Apple Fair has been celebrating more than just its namesake fruit for more than four decades. On August 17-18, 2019, the annual fundraiser will feature live music on two stages; arts and crafts vendors; both a craft cider and microbrew tent, plus wine, specialty cocktails, and lots of local food made just for the occasion.
Learn to make your own hard cider and cyser or all about growing mushrooms at home in the DIY tent, where you can also craft your honey apple oatmeal soap or botanical cocktails and refreshments. Plus, discover the secrets of all things farming at the Life on the Farm Arena—watch a goat milking demo, find out about chicken keeping and the carbon footprint, and check out a wildlife rescue presentation. You can even show off your kitchen chops in Saturday's apple pie baking contest—just make sure to use only Sonoma County–grown apples. // Aug. 17–18, 2019 at Ragle Ranch Park (Sebastopol); $15/person, $12 if you bike; gravensteinapplefair.com.