Apples are pretty much on our minds all year long. Winter to spring we are grafting, pruning, planting and nurturing (20 new baby trees this year alone) then we hit early summer and thinning followed by staking begins. Finally, mid-September, we’re faced with the decision of what to pick first, and the challenge begins to find able bodies to help harvest over the next month, as our dry farmed heirloom varieties all ripen differently. The labor crunch in Anderson Valley only gets worse every year, as vineyards proliferate.
Apples are an exhausting, perplexing, challenging piece of our farming life. We get cider and syrup, juice and vinegar out of the trees, for which we are justly proud. We get to tell the history of this ridge, honoring the commitment we made to it three decades ago, and to participate in the County Fair, which allows us to cross paths with a community we admire. But the sweetest moment in any year of farming apples isn’t looking over a barn filled with product, as laudable as that is - it’s a moment that comes and goes quickly, but with a promise that always delivers: when we finally lift a glass and have that first drink straight from the apple press. How to describe it? It’s apple skins that taste of hot sun and baked earth mingling with juicy flesh that has bathed in the gentle fogs that roll over the ridges every evening from the ocean, enfolding the trees, often lingering on through morning. It’s fragrant apple mist, with honeyed top notes followed by a whisper of dried cinnamon and chaparral. There is a barest hint of something green in the finish, not herbal but close. Wild mint maybe. Spruce tips. That first sip is the moment you think, holy shit, drink the view, yes.
To that moment we get the added joy of sharing that first draught just down the road at The Philo Apple Farm. We’ve been honored to raise our families, crops and more than one glass of g&t with Karen and Tim Bates for over the years; seeing their lovely daughter Rita and our son, Lukka, and their respective partners, Jerzy and Dan, working together at crush gives rise to one of those rare moments when the words ‘family’ and ‘farm’ still glow with promise. These are supremely talented kids that could be off doing something else - yet here they are, bonhomie personified, making juice on a glorious sunny day, air redolent with cooking apples. It isn’t something to take for granted.
If you don’t already know about the Philo Apple Farm, which sits on the Navarro River just across from Hendy Woods, you should. Hanging out there is a truly exquisite experience, all the more so for not being full of itself. This is a hard working apple farm with greenhouses, fields of vegetables and flowers, an old fashioned packing shed, a cooking kitchen for classes and private dinners, five charming cottages, and acres of orchard walks leading down to the river or into the redwoods.
To the familial cast of characters at first crush (there will be at least two more) were several good spirited interns that kept the apples bouncing through the grinder and up to the ladies on the platform, in full yellow aprons and white boots, who gently wrapped layer after layer of pulp into apple soaked linens used to line the press trays. Only Rita really knew where everything was flowing, good thing the kid has a mind like a steel trap. This is a decidedly old fashioned way of pressing apples, outdoors on an old crusher and even older press, with fall leaves and lots of good bacteria floating around. In an increasingly technological world that is compartmentalized and insulated from nature, first crush is a step back to a time when experience was visceral, memory relied on bites not bytes, and fellowship mattered.
Next Wednesday and Thursday, for as long as it lasts, we will have fresh pressed Barndiva Farm apple juice to share with our guests and neighbors in Healdsburg, a tradition we love to keep going this time of year, so come on by. Once Chef Mark is settled in and working alongside Andrew and Scotty, we will, no doubt, have more to share from this year’s harvest.