The History Behind Six-Generation Gowan’s Cidery And California’s First Outdoor Cider Tasting Orchard

Gowan’s Cidery is a six-generation establishment located right off highway 128, a road that most take to get to Mendocino County, California. Though you may be tempted to continue to drive pass what appears to be a simple apple orchard, you’d be making a terrible mistake. Gowan’s Cidery is a stunning, sprawling orchard featuring a special collection of 84 different types of heirloom apples from around the world.

These ancient trees have been planted by great, great grandparents. Over the generations they continued to flourish and produce the very apples used to craft award-wining ciders and some of the best apple pies you’ll ever taste. Gowan’s handcrafts six estate applewine ciders, each of which have won countless awards.

“We grow every apple in these historic orchards that the Gowan family has cared for since 1876,” explains Sharon Gowan, Founder Cidermaker at Gowan’s Heirloom Cider.

“So guests enjoy the magic of these trees, growing in this terroir, and bottled right here. Estate ciders are even more rare than estate wines, where the applewine is bottled onsite where the apples grow. That means that, unlike most grocery store apples, we can grow rare heirloom apples, allow them to tree ripen, and press juice when they’re perfect balance of flavor, acids and tannins. This is as farm-to-table as it gets.”

Gowan’s beautiful trees are the first step in making their award-winning ciders, she continues. They opened California’s first outdoor cider tasting orchard in what she describes as a “living museum,” with some of the oldest trees in the orchard.

This is cider in its purest form, applewine cider.

“It’s all about the best quality, good ripe fruit, and protecting that flavor. Because we have the luxury of our own orchards, curated through generations for the very best flavor on this land, we get to choose from a palette of natural flavors unique to this terroir and these heirloom trees,” says Gowan.

“So these delicate heirlooms can be harvested when they’re just right for cider. And rather than being stored for a year like many apples destined for grocery stores, we can press when the flavor is perfect. Tree ripening and fresh pressing are keys to the best flavor.”

Gowan’s currently offers a selection of unique treats ranging from their 100% organic, unfiltered and unpasteurized fresh pressed frozen non-alcoholic cider to freshly baked apple pies and crumbles. Visitors are also encouraged to purchase fresh picked apples and other produce grown on the estate including heirloom pears, figs, and persimmons.

Because cider pairs so well with a variety of foods, Gowan’s recently began offering guests a chance try the ciders with a variety of different flavors to inspire their next meal at home. Guests are invited to enjoy Cider Pairing Picnic Bites on weekends that includes three trays of savory and sweet bites curated for each cider.

This is pre-fixe and seasonal. Previous food parings have included chili mango, mint goat cheese (from a local dairy), and their house-made savory apple house chutney. “We love hearing when our guests return and share their new favorite pairing with our ciders,” she says.

We chatted with Sharon Gowan, Founder Cidermaker at Gowan’s Heirloom Cider, on the cidery’s history, types of ciders produced, food pairings and so much more. Here’s what she had to say.

Gowan’s is a six-generation cidery and orchard — how have things changed since Gowan’s became established?

When we work in the orchards and barns, it’s as if we’re looking at a photo album. We still use a barn built in 1890 from redwood trees hand-milled on the farm. Or traveling along Hwy 128 towards the town of Mendocino, where we drove teams of horses pulling heaping wagons of apples to sell door to door. Back then the road was narrow, visitors less common, though the stagecoach stopped at the Gowan orchard for a fresh team of horses.

We’re still delivering apples and cider, heading south on Hwy 128 to the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento. We started delivering fresh apples to San Francisco when the Golden Gate was just 10 years old. Back then the orchard workers were all women, from pruning to harvesting.

Josephine, who will be celebrating her 97th birthday, worked in the orchards with all- women harvesting crews. Now orchard work is done entirely by men, and the tractors bring in the harvest instead of the horses.

In the cidery, you’ll find a modern apple press, shiny stainless-steel tanks for fermenting, a brand new bottling line pairing modern science with generations of apple growing institutional knowledge. We’re preparing to plant new orchards in the modern hedge-row style, awaiting delivery of our first autonomous tractor, and tracking the development of drone harvesting.

But the basics remain, tree and terroir, weather and water, sun and seasons, welcoming visitors, delivering fresh apples and cider, and most importantly, that hope that the decisions we make today will be the foundation for the next 146 years here.

What sets your ciders apart from those of mass competitors?

Large mass market ciders have introduced ciders to the masses, and that’s great for all cider producers. That said, our heritage of farming at Gowan’s sets us apart and our ciders too. This is practically baked into our DNA, so we’re not talking a single generation or two – it’s six generations of farmers that have gone into the ciders we produce today.

One of the biggest differences between Gowan’s and mass producers of cider is transparency. You know where our apples are grown and that they’re organic. A lot of slick marketing and packaging can be very misleading to consumers who just want to support local farms and know where their food comes from.

Many people think cider is like wine, and if the label says “California” or whatever state on the can or case, then the apples must grown in that state. Unfortunately for consumers, that’s not true.

Gowan’s Cider Tasting in the Orchard is the first outdoor only tasting area. How did this come to be?

With six generations of farmers, it was a natural progression to make hard cider. Certainly it was happening on a personal level within the family – how many things can you make with apples, right? Being in Anderson Valley and watching the growth of the wine industry, we realized we also had something to offer to the public.

Gowan’s has been making cider for well over 100 years and we still have historic apple presses from a hundred years ago. Certainly cider was made for personal use over the years. Our apples have been sought after bakers, juice and spirit makers, and cidermakers.

We received our permit to sell cider commercially about 10 years ago now. We’ve long thought that the fruit that this corner of paradise produces is second to none, and I know our winery friends feel the same way. The warm days and cool nights allow the fruit to develop deep flavor slowly in these heritage orchards, and when paired with the correct variety and orchard care, it’s magical.

With the more recent (last 40 years) influx of vineyards and wineries, the added recognition of Anderson Valley as a premier growing region, these beautiful historic orchards we thought we had something unique to offer.

These are some of the oldest apple orchards in the state of California, and they feel like a magical garden or cathedral. While not the first cidery, Gowan’s Cider Tasting in the Orchard is California’s first exclusively outdoor tasting experience. Guests enjoy cider in its purest form while relaxing in the shade of hundred year old apple trees. People love that everything happens right here where the heirloom apples grow, juice pressed, and cider is bottled — producing a rare estate cider.

Visitors love the changing seasons, from the elegant stark beauty of the winter orchards to the excitement of buds and romantic blossoms of spring. The lush greens of early summer are then, suddenly it seems the rush of harvest is here followed by the crescendo of fall season kicks off with our heirloom pears, Gravenstein apple harvest, crush, fresh apples, pies, apple picking through November when the beautiful oranges and golds sweep through the orchards.

Talk about your award-winning ciders and what makes them special.

Today we handcraft six estate applewine ciders. All of our ciders are made from apples grown here. And since we have over 80 different heirloom apples, we can make single varietal ciders.

Our first cider is a tribute to the historic orchards—1876 Heirloom. It’s a special recipe blend (or cuvée) combining over a dozen rare heirlooms that span the history of the orchard. Some liken it to a French cider.

It was scored among the top 1% of the best wines from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake in 2019, with a 98 points, and has since won Best in Class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition as well. My favorite pairing with this is Yancy’s smoked gouda and bacon cheese, tikka masala, caramel in dark chocolate. 98 points.

This year our Macintosh cider was name Best in class at the SF Chronicle, was best in class last year at the SF International wine competition with a score of 97 points. Twice now, our Macintosh also won Best in Class at the largest cider competition in the world (GLINTCAP). It’s our driest cider, very floral and bright. Goes great with strawberries, almond, and pork. 97 points.

Gravenstein cider was nicknamed “Summer in a Glass” from fans and is our most popular. It has also won the most awards: Best in Show from California Cider Competitions, California State Fair, three Best in Class from SF Chronicle Wine Competitions, Best in Class GLINTCAP, and more. Tastes like you’re biting into a fresh apple with a great sweet tart balance. Great with fresh herbs, blue cheese, salmon. 96 points.

Sierra Beauty is a different style—a still cider. Smooth savory and bold, it’s great with lemon, garlic pasta and poultry, and oatmeal raisin cookies. And it’s made from the Sierra Beauty apple which is a native California apple. A single tree planted here in 1906 was the source for what is now acres and acres of this amazing apple. Unaware of our success with this apple, researchers had written it off as extinct until they happened to visit our farm in the 1990’s. We provided scion wood to all interested nurseries. Nowadays if you buy a Sierra Beauty tree from any nursery, it is a clone of that one tree planted here in 1906. 92 points.

Spiced Apple cider or wassail well-balanced not-too-sweet wassail or mulled cider. Wassail is a tribute to the thousand’s year-old orchard tradition called ‘wassailing’ or wishing one another good health and a good harvest in the coming year. Wassailing developed into modern day caroling.

Spiced Apple is great with brunch, ham, lamb, cheesecake, or a scoop of vanilla ice cream (we call it a Snowball). 90 points

Our latest is Pinot Rosé cider, using local Pinot Noir finished in French Oak, blended with our applewine cider. Jammy, crisp and refreshing, this pairs beautifully with Gruyere cheese, tri tip, raspberries and dark chocolate. It’s our latest cider to win Best in Class at GLINTCAP, Best in Class at SFCWC, and also Best Cider at the Experience Rosé, the largest rosé wine competition in North America. 94 points.

What types of foods pair best with ciders and how do you come up with the pairings themselves?

Cider is easy and fun to pair with a vast variety of foods, from elegant Michelin starred menus to backyard BBQ. It’s so refreshing that it works with spice pallets from Asia to Hispanic, classic American to east African. Try any cheeses (including blue cheese) or pork dishes from bacon to pulled pork.

One of our guests told us that our Sierra Beauty was fantastic with their Thanksgiving turducken. Seafood is great, lamb and beef too. With the bright acidity even prime rib works great. Spicy dishes including mole! Charcuterie and potato chips is super fun and delicious!

Vegetables and fresh herbs work great too; mushrooms, butternut squash and leeks, zucchini with Italian herbs. We often include fruits in picnic baskets, strawberries and raspberries, orange, lemon, fig, mango. And ciders go great with dessert too: chocolate, caramel, cheesecake, marzipan.

We’ll bring home a doggy bag from a dinner out and ‘play’ with those flavors. It’s lots of fun. Sometimes everyone agrees on the best pairing, and sometimes we’re all over the map. Let’s just say there’s a lot of taste testing to determine what works.

Why aren’t cider pairings more of a thing?

I think it’s moving in that direction, especially with the more elevated applewine ciders. The ‘fine’ ciders lend themselves really well to food pairings. I think pairing cider with meals is the best kept secret. Ciders have a refreshing and delicate, so they don’t overwhelm the dishes the chef has prepared, and yet they definitely add to it. Plus they’re usually lower in alcohol so you can enjoy a couple of glasses and still feel great!

What’s in the works at Gowan’s?

We’re so excited for this year! More ways than ever to experience all the seasons in the apple orchard. New this year is U-pick, blossoms bathing, St. Patrick’s Day, Chutney Competition, apple tasting, cider picnics and music. Check out all our events here.

Up next is Apple Blossoms in April—it’ springtime in the orchards! We will have orchard tours so guests can experience the fragrant apple blossoms on short a guided walks. We also offer Blossom ‘Bathing’ private sessions, where you get to enjoy your own time in the spring orchards. Great for photos!

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