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Though apples are the nation's most popular fruit, they are relatively worthless in Sonoma County, California. (Patti McConville / Alamy)

California’s Disappearing Apple Orchards

In Sonoma County, apple growers battle against the wine industry and cheap Chinese imports

But at another Sonoma County company called Murray’s Cyder, owner Wayne Van Loon is developing a different sort of brand. He is paying local apple growers about three times the standard rate for their apple juice and calls it his “mission in life, besides blessing the world with cider, to save the apples” of Sonoma County–a big goal for such a tiny enterprise. In 2010, Van Loon bottled up just 350 cases of 750-milliliter bottles, each of which he corked by hand with a manual press. That year’s production used the juice of about 600 trees, Van Loon guesses, but the company is growing fast. This year, Van Loon expects to double the volume while focusing on using traditional English cider apple varieties–fruits with names like Golden Russet, Brown Snout, Liberty and Stayman Winesap.

Such varieties, though rare, are available at scattered locations throughout Sonoma County, but Van Loon now needs more apples, and for several farmers, Murray’s Cyder could represent a stable future income. Working under supply agreements with Van Loon, they are now planting apple saplings by the hundreds. In several years the trees will bear lumpy, inedible fruits good for little else than making cider, and—in a land of valuable Pinot Noir grapes and cheap imported apples—the venture is clearly a gamble. But sales reports from companies as large as Ace and as small as Murray’s show that interest in apple cider is growing, and to bank on a future in apples in Sonoma County might even be a gamble worth making.

Alastair Bland blogs about adventure travel for Smithsonian’s “Off the Road.”

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