One of the most exciting, and dangerous, things about Mendocino county is how many hidden wonders there are along the side of the road. A two lane highway stretching along to wherever you're on your way to offers so many opportunities for an impromptu adventure, like the one we found yesterday! Just a few miles south of our current camp host spot lies the Anderson Valley which is locally and nationally renowned for the wonderful wines it produces. We spent a few days wine tasting which you can read about here, but hadn't yet made it further south to Gowan's, where they attract travelers with a handmade sign declaring, "Cider tasting!"
We had originally set out for a hike and a relaxing Sunday drive, but a spontaneous turn led us out of state park territory and into the wine valley. Late in the afternoon we didn't think we'd be able to get a tasting reserved, so we cruised a little further down looking for a turnaround when we had the idea to finally see what this apple orchard had to offer. We parked alongside a shed and let the sign guide us inside. A quaint setup with antique tables and chairs sit in the front of the barn, with a glass fridge and about a hundred apple crates stacked up on the opposite side. The crates were adorned with ribbons and medals that the family's cider had won over the years, with each bottle wearing its own distinctions. We would have done a tasting no matter what, but seeing just how well regarded their products are would have convinced me into it either way.
Unlike the wine tastings we had done in the valley, there was no sommelier in a vest and black tie filling our water glasses and offering us crackers as we searched for the notes they describe and ooh and ahh at the growing process. Instead, the awesome woman who led us through the process was wearing a sweatshirt and rain boots, chatted with us about where we were from and Southern California traffic, and just put us at ease. It was exactly what we wanted that day. The morning has been stormy so we were nestled under the roof of the "130 year old barn" instead of out in the orchard. A small grey cat who patrols the property came up to nuzzle our legs as we dug into our first cider, a Macintosh variety that was sweet, clear, and refreshing.
Now, they say cider tasting, but technically what we're drinking is an apple wine that is lightly carbonated. Much lighter than any of the apple flavored beers and ciders I've previously tried, and without the sugar that gets added to wine in the fermentation process. Nathaniel loves apple juice and I love wine, so this was really the perfect line right down the middle where we both get what we want and both really enjoy it! It doesn't taste like a compromise. The second variety was non sparkling and bottled in a wine bottle instead of the distinctive shape of the other varieties. A Sierra Beauty, she called it, made with a small and sweet apple that has been growing on the family's 300 acre orchard for over a hundred years. In fact, they found out this particular variety is actually extinct elsewhere, so they've started propagating and grafting trees to produce them outside the orchard as well. This one tasted more like wine, in a good way, and I could see myself serving this with dinner instead of a moscato or a riesling. The other one we tasted that was more similar to a traditional wine was the Rose, made with a mix of cider and pinot noir. She recommended it to be paired with red meat or richer dinners. I mentioned we host a lot of taco nights, an easy buffet style meal that can be adapted depending on who we have over at the park, and the Heirloom or Gravenstein ciders are a better fit with a meal like that.
I learned SO MUCH about apples in the half hour or so that we were tasting and chatting. Being from Florida, living with a Californian, we talk a lot about the citrus in each of our states. Florida oranges are typically sweet, juicy, and a little yellow and ugly on the outside, so they get made into juice and shipped around the country, while Californian oranges are the perfect smooth orange globes we like to snack on, and even in the Sunshine State we find them on our market shelves. I wondered if apples were similar, and if the cider apples were more popular for pressing because of their appearance. It turns out in Mendocino county specifically, where non-GMO, organic, farm to table, local produce is in high demand, their ugly little apples do well in stores! If you can get the image of a red delicious out of your head and bite into one that is less photogenic, you'll be rewarded with a great taste. The Gravenstein variety in particular is so popular that people call ahead to track down where they'll be able to buy it in the very short shelf life that it has. I think we'll stick to the Gravenstein version of their cider, since it requires less planning and is available all year round.
Our all time favorite was the last one we tasted, a Spiced Apple Cider that literally tasted like a bite of apple pie. It can be warmed up, and I think it would be so delicious with some whipped cream or vanilla ice cream on top. She recommended adding cinnamon or apple whiskey to enhance the alcohol content while still highlighting the flavor. I mean, even before you taste it, the smell hits your nose and truly transports you to fall. We ended up buying two bottles, it was so delicious. On our way out we thanked her, and turned the corner to peak at the orchard before heading back home. Just a few miles outside of our tiny town lies so many experiences! Now that we're vaccinated and coming into the summer months I'm so excited to explore our area as it returns to it's former glory. If you're planning a trip up here stop by and experience the flavor! If you're headed anywhere else, stop when you see a roadside stand or market along the way. You never know what you'll find!