It’s all about the apples. At the Devoto family’s orchards this is something you’ll hear the entire family say. From apple farming to cider making everything starts with quality in the orchard.
Devoto Gardens was started by Stan and Susan Devoto in 1976 when they moved from Berkley to Sebastopol. Susan’s passion was growing cut flowers while Stan was interested in growing crops.
In the late eighties, Stan purchased a new property adjacent to the plot he owned and replanted all the apple orchards along with a smaller Pinot Noir vineyard.
“Anywhere you can grow Pinot Noir, you can grow apples,” said Stan. He believes the soil which is perfect for growing Pinot Noir is also ideal for growing apples.
Jolie Devoto-Wade grew up on her parent’s farm, learning about apples, flowers and grapes. She received her degree in marketing from Cal Poly before moving to San Francisco where she met her husband Hunter Wade at a bikram yoga class.
Hunter, who grew up on a cattle ranch in Maryland, studied music and Spanish. His Spanish degree led him to spend time in Spain where he first fell in love with cider.
“I love this stuff, you have to try it,” Hunter told Jolie one night over a glass of sidra, Spanish cider, at a bar in San Francisco.
Together, Jolie and Hunter bought jugs of apple juice at Whole Foods and started fermenting their first batch of cider in their basement. It wasn’t long after when Jolie and Hunter moved to Spain for six months to learn more about the cider making process.
Cider, an alcoholic beverage made from the juice of fermented apples, ranges from 4-8% alcohol. It’s a common product produced and consumed in Europe, but recent years have seen a significant increase of craft cider production in Sonoma County.
The couple came back from Spain wanting to make a California cider and the Devoto family’s orchards made that a real possibility. After getting married in 2012, Jolie and Hunter moved back to Sebastopol expecting to work on the family farm, but in less than a year their cider business had grown exponentially. Hunter was making cider while Jolie managed sales and communications.
Today, Devoto Cider makes 10,000 gallons of cider from apples dry-farmed on their Sebastopol land. Hunter and Jolie are making an additional 90,000 gallons a year under the brand Golden State Cider with apples purchased from multiple west coast locations.
Hunter and Jolie both emphasize their cider is a California style. They said, while other producers want to create a European style cider, they aim to make a California cider with European influences as well as incorporating ideas from the local beer and wine communities.
Devoto Orchards’ Estate Cider comes in a wine bottle, highlighting its quality as well as Jolie and Hunter’s vision of a cider that pairs well with food. They aimed to create a high quality product and differentiate it from six packs, the common form cider is found in.
Jolie and Hunter drink their estate cider from wine glasses versus traditional pint glasses, and it comes in three varieties: 1976, Gravenstein and Cidre Noir.
The 1976, named after the year the farm was started, is a blend of 17 varieties, of which Jolie said she can still taste the specific apples. “It’s great to make the connection between the apples and the cider,” said Jolie.
While they pick the varieties to blend into each cider, it’s important to everyone involved that there is little intervention with the apples and the fruit is allowed express its natural flavors.
“The less we get in the way of the apples, the better the cider,” said Hunter.
Devoto Gardens focuses on growing quality fruit to make quality cider. They are certified organic including the apples used in their estate cider; however, the cider itself is not packaged as organic.
The farming side of the business is still managed by Stan, who has been inspired to grow more apples by Hunter and Jolie’s expanding business. In the early stages of growth, a crew goes through and thins the apples to assure high quality and even distribution of the apples.
The cider process begins with handpicking apples. There are more than 6,500 trees at Devoto Gardens planted on 25 acres. They grow approximately 100 different varieties of apples from traditional European apples to California developed varieties. Cider apples are more bitter, smaller and harder than traditional apples.
The picked apples are separated into number one apples and number two apples, depending on size and shape. Number one apples are sold to Manzana, while number two apples which don’t meet visual standards are processed by Manzana and then trucked to the nearby cider production facility.
“One of my favorite things about cider production is how it’s all about the apples and taste, not the cosmetic side,” said Stan.
After the apples are pressed, the juice is fermented in stainless steel tanks at 55-60 °F for two weeks and then allowed to mature for two months before bottling. It is carbonated using dry ice, but less than traditional cider to bring out the specific flavors of the apples. The cider making process takes four months from harvest to bottling.
“Our passion is growing apples and making them into quality cider,” said Jolie. “We’ve had great support from the community. People like to eat and drink, and everyone supports everyone else in any way they can.”
“Sonoma County is a very exciting place to be in agriculture, people are really passionate about it here,” said Hunter. “Sonoma County has high quality standards and it is our job to continue and respect that. We always have to be raising the bar.”
Jolie and Hunter plan to keep the Devoto Cider to estate grown apples and while their production might vary from year to year, they don’t expect to see significant changes in the amount they produce.
However, they plan to continue expanding the Golden State Cider line, moving into Southern California markets in the near future. Packaged in a can, Hunter describes their vision for Golden State Cider as something you can take in your backpack on a hike or to the beach or drink a pint in a bar.
During the off season, the flower business still provides a cash flow and work for the 12 full time employees of Devoto Gardens. Devoto Cider has an additional five full time including a full time cider maker recently brought on in August.
Devoto Cider can be found at local stores including Oliver’s, Whole Foods and Bottle Barn and costs $12-$13/bottle. For more information visit www.devotocider.com.