Six Generations of Apple Innovation
by Ree Slocum
It was one of those crispy hot, dry days in June when I drove through Anderson Valley’s wine country on Highway 128. I was on my way to visit the Gowan’s apple farm and cidery. The scenery was resplendent with rolling hills, sheep ranches, old Victorian farmhouses, vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms. Nestled in the midst of hills planted in wine grapes are acres of Gowan apple orchards, providing both color and deep history to the area. Right off the road is their quaint roadside produce stand. A bit further is the warehouse, which was undergoing a transformation from an apple packing plant to make more room for the expanding cidery. In its welcome coolness, I met with Sharon Gowan and family matriarch, Josephine Gowan. Josephine’s wit and sharp memory were entertaining as she talked about the long and rich family history in Anderson Valley.
In the mid-1800s, a branch of the Studebaker car manufacturing family moved to California, bought land outside of Philo, and soon planted Gravenstein apple trees on their farm. In 1876, the Gowans bought a portion of the land. It didn’t take long before the two families melded together by marriage under the Gowan surname. The two women told story after fascinating story about the historic procuring of many of their heirloom apple varieties.
Because of the success of the one Gravenstein apple, the families realized they had the perfect climate and soil to continue expanding their orchards. When any of them traveled and discovered new varieties of flavorful apples, they brought them home to test out in their orchard. Josephine told one story about Great, Great Grandpa Daniel.“ In 1906 [he] was on a trip by horse near Jackson, California [at the foothills of the Sierra Mountains]. He got a [Sierra Beauty apple] tree from a farmer and took it home and planted it. The apple was a family favorite, so they grafted and planted it, then grafted and planted, and grafted and planted, so there are now acres and acres of them!”
Eighty years later, researchers were looking for Sierra Beauty apple trees, believed to be extinct. The Gowans got wind of it, contacted the researchers, and Josephine’s late husband, Jim, released the scion wood so others could plant it. Sharon added that any Sierra Beauty apple tree found in the world can probably be traced back to the Gowan orchard. It’s now the primary ingredient in a Gowan Heirloom “still cider,” much like a Chardonnay wine, winning awards in wine competitions.
Sharon’s husband, Don, stated that they are a family of farmers and peddlers who’ve met the challenges of a changing economy or market whenever necessary. Historically, they began peddling fresh apples up and down the Mendocino Coast using wagons and draft horses. Back then, Highway 128 was a dirt road and was routed over the steep Anderson Valley ridge. It was rutted, dusty, or dangerously muddy, making it an arduous trek to the coast. In the pre-WWII era, the family dried and dry-canned apple slices for home and professional bakers’ use. In 1952, after Jim and Josephine purchased a WWII Army Surplus vehicle, they began to truck fresh apples to a San Francisco wholesale market. They also sold their apples in local stores and from their fruit and vegetable stand. Today, Don’s sister and brother-in-law, Grace and Otilio Espinoza, manage the produce stand and also sell apples to Mendocino County schools.
When the economy began to change in the mid 2000s, Don and Sharon looked at one other and knew it was crucial to try something different. There was increasing demand for cosmetically beautiful fruit with crisp, hard bodies and uniform sizes, that, in many cases, did not have much flavor. The couple believed in their delicious, tree-ripened, heirloom apples. Being a relatively small orchard, they couldn’t compete with the huge corporate orchards selling large quantities at lower prices. How could they turn this treasure into something new and sustainable?
Because of their reputation for having tree-ripened apples whose flavors remain true to their variety, local hard cider-makers have often used the Gowan apples to flavor their home-fermented ciders. Don and Sharon thought, “Wait a minute! We have something very special here we haven’t realized. We have these delicious heirloom apples, and we should start producing our own [hard] cider.” Through research, taking classes in fine hard cider-making, testing yeasts, timings, and tasting with the family’s historically refined palates, they realized their apples’ flavor profiles were superior to other apples. In 2014, they obtained their license and have been producing orchard-based, fine hard ciders and winning prestigious awards ever since.
I was treated to a tasting at the cidery after our interview. We sat comfortably at the end of shoots—an artifact from the packing era where, for years, apples had been sorted and crated. Sharon introduced me to three of the Gowan fine ciders. She emphasized that each cider is a “premium cider, fruit forward, terroir driven, and that’s probably why they’re winning such high awards at cider and wine competitions. You can taste the different flavors of the actual apple!” I find their fine ciders delicious, with no two alike. It was easy to distinguish between the Gravenstein and Sierra Beauty. The 1876 Heirloom Cuvée was my favorite. It’s a complex, light, semi-dry blend with just a hint of apple sweetness, a perfect chilled cider to sip on a hot summer day.
As we talked, Sharon painted this sensory picture. “If you walked in an orchard with me on a warm afternoon in October, with some apples on the ground and some in the trees, and we’re well into harvest, this cider [the Heirloom Sierra Beauty] would taste like that smells. We tried to capture that feeling of October in our orchard.” I’d like to go back in autumn to walk the orchards with Sharon and experience the trees, apples, smells, and stories while sipping their latest release. Gowan’s fine ciders are available in stores and restaurants.
For more information about tasting events and to subscribe to their E-newsletter and Cider Club, visit GowansHeirloomCider.com.
Ree Slocum is a fine art freelance photographer and writer who calls the edge of the wilds in Mendocino County “home.” She takes pleasure living with bird song, the breathing fog, and wildlife’s cast of characters when not on assignments. Ree can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.