show menu

The gravensteins are coming: Sebastopol’s apple treasures

If you’re a grouch and think that a small group of people without deep pockets, and without hands on the levers of power, can’t make a big difference locally, think again. The members of Slow Food Russian River (SFRR), a chapter of Slow Food USA—a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation that emphasizes the benefits of food that’s good, clean and sustainable—have helped to save the once endangered gravenstein Apple, the pride of Sonoma County, especially in and around Sebastopol. SFRR members have educated the public about apples, farming and farmers and augmented a sense of community.

For the past eight years—with the notable exception of 2020, when the pandemic was near its height—“the Apple Core,” a project of SFRR, (, has operated “the free apple press.” In 2021, masks and proof of vaccination were required. They will be required again this year. Once again, near the middle of summer 2022, no one will miss the large banners on Highway 12 and Highway 116 that read, “The gravensteins are coming,” and soon afterward, “The gravensteins are here.” Hallelujah!

You know it's really summer when the gravs arrive. I learned about them when I arrived in Sebastopol in 1976 and made them a part of my diet. They still are.

Over the years, thousands of Sonoma County residents have brought apples to the press and made sweet, delicious apple juice and apple cider which has a kick like no other. The growth of the cider industry and cider culture have been a boon to apple farming and the apple industry. John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, the nineteenth-century missionary for his favorite fruit, would be pleased, indeed.

Parents and their kids cooperate at the apple press. Rarely does anyone come alone, but rather in couples and in groups of five, six and seven. Hey, it’s a family event. There is absolutely no charge, and, while it takes some effort to operate, it’s mostly fun. People help one another squeeze juice from the fruit. They fill plastic gallon jugs and glass jars and take the precious beverage home where they can enjoy it at their leisure with friends and family members.

The Apple Core and the Apple Press are a team effort, though some individuals stand out. Paula Downing, a strong advocate for farmers’ markets, has been the prime mover in bringing grammar school kids to the press. Also, she has been the leading force who makes arrangements with local ranchers who pick up the “pomace,” a by-product of making juice, which they feed to their animals as a special treat. It’s a win-win situation.

When Paula Shatkin and her husband, David, arrived in the county from LA in 1999, she observed that apple orchards were being ripped out and replaced with vineyards and grapes. Out with one crop, in with another. That’s part of the ag story here. At a meeting of SFRR, Shatkin exclaimed, “Somone should do something to save the apples!”

Michael Dimock, the founder of the environmental organization, Roots of Change (ROC), who also helped start the local chapter of Slow Food USA, told Shatkin, “Yeah, you do it.”

Not long ago, Dimock offered a valuable insight. “The apple is an icon like the whale, panda, polar bear or any endangered critter or species for which people rally,” he told me. “Saving gravensteins has been part of the fight to save food-plant diversity and the diversity of Sonoma County ag.”

Before anyone could say “Slow Food Russian River,” Paula Shatkin rolled up her shirt sleeves and got to work, imbued with a sense of purpose. “The gravenstein is our apple,” she told me. “It’s an heirloom. Apple orchards are beautiful, they’re part of the history of our community and they’re dry farmed.” One of Shatkin’s main contributions has been the “applesauce project,” which receives ample help from Farm to Pantry—the year-round gleaning organization—and its executive director, Duskie Estes.

The volunteers at SFRR and Farm to Pantry have collected, in large bins, thousands of pounds of apples which have been delivered, with help from workers at Dutton Ranch, to Manzana Products Company, the organic apple cannery in Sebastopol where the fruit is turned into sauce. Then, jars of sauce go to the Redwood Empire Food Bank and to hungry people.

The Manzana website has helped to educate the public about apples. It reads, “In 1820 the first west coast gravenstein orchard was planted by Russian fur traders at their outpost in Fort Ross. Soon afterward, orchards began cropping up in neighboring towns with a concentration of trees thriving in the sandy loam soil of Sebastopol.” Manzana makes the sauce free of charge, as a service to the community.

When Shatkin isn’t working to save the Gravs, you might find her in her kitchen making tasty apple pies and quarts of delicious applesauce—all from one bountiful tree in her yard. “Gravs make the best apple sauce and the best pies,” she told me. “They’re sweet and tart, which is how I like them to be. They hold their shape and don’t become mushy and fall apart when they’re baked in an oven.”

Like Shatkin, Sebastopol’s Bob Burke, another SFRR member, sings the praises of the gravs, and especially the trees in his own yard. One of them, which he estimates is 50 years old, still produces thousands of apples a year. “It’s a challenge to prevent them from going to waste,” he told me. That story is repeated all over the county, where people have productive apple trees and more apples than they can eat or turn into pies and sauce. The Apple Press makes it possible for them to save apples that would ordinarily go to waste and to transform fruit into food that can be eaten slowly and enjoyed thoroughly.

Burke didn’t know about the Gravs when he and his wife moved from Marin, where he practised law, to Sonoma County 19 years ago, bought a home and settled down. It’s not surprising that the gravs weren't a blip on Burke’s screen when he arrived in Sebastopol. In the world of apples, gravs are rare. They ripen earlier than most other varieties such as Jonathans, Romes and Honey Crisp. They have a short growing season, bruise easily and don’t travel well. Call them finicky.

Burke explained that if you drive a truckload of gravs from Sebastopol to LA they will lose some of their beauty, which detracts from their saleability. Also, Burke added that the gravenstein has big competition. Thousands of different varieties of apples are cultivated and enjoyed all over the world.

No doubt, if you love gravs you already know that apples have a long history that goes back thousands of years, and that early on the fruit entered the realm of religion and mythology. (Think Garden of Eden and remember the glorious paintings with Eve, Adam, the Tree of Knowledge and an apple.) Also, after many centuries, an anonymous person expressed the notion that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Apples are healthy and nutritious, especially if they’re grown organically.

Soon after Burke moved to Sebastopol, he was converted to the cause. “Saving the Gravensteins struck me as worthwhile,” he told me. He joined the core and operated the apple press, a labor intensive activity that he described to me as “the most visible aspect of SFRR.” The press is the project where the organization, which is fairly small, meets and greets the public at large.

The only community apple press in the US is right here in Sebastopol

Burke explained that apple presses operate in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but that the Sebastopol Apple Press is the only one in the USA. Google “Community Apple Press” and the number one hit is “Sebastopol Community Apple Press.” It makes Burke proud. On the website, the text reads, “The Apple Core of Slow Food Russian River operates the Sebastopol Community Apple Press at the Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Experiment Farm in Sebastopol during apple season—from August to October. Use of the press is a community service.”

In the beginning, Burke told me he wanted to speed-up and maximize production, and so he created ten-minute time slots for locals to turn apples into juice. Then, he realized that the movement he had joined was about slowing down the making and the enjoyment of food and drink. The ten-minute slots were expanded to 20-minutes. The additional time made it possible for neighbors to introduce themselves to one another at a leisurely pace, talk, trade stories and lend helping hands. The bonds that were formed were lasting, and little by little the press boosted the local agricultural economy.

“The aim,” Burke told me, “was always to increase the public demand for apples in Sonoma County so farmers could continue to grow and harvest apples and make money.”

The free Apple Press opens August 6. The following weekend, Apple Core volunteers will be at the Gravenstein Apple Fair, making juice and distributing free samples. The press is back in operation on August 20. Reservations can be made starting July 15 at

We've moved our commenting system to Disqus, a widely used community engagement tool that you may already be using on other websites. If you're a registered Disqus user, your account will work on the Gazette as well. If you'd like to sign up to comment, visit
Show Comment