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Over six generations, family members who run Gowan’s Heirloom Orchards, have gone from delivering apples by horse and wagon, to growing and selling more than 80 varietals, and winning numerous cider competitions.

This spring marked the family’s 142nd apple-growing season on its 240-acre property in the Anderson Valley, along the Mendocino Coast. The orchards reside in a microclimate ripe for growing many dozens of apple varieties, including its most popular apple, the Gravenstein, according to the family.

“When the Gowans first arrived in 1876, there already were some orchards on the property, including Gravenstein trees more than 150 years old,” said Sharon Gowan, cider maker and head of marketing, adding that the family has since developed three subvarieties of the Gravenstein apple.

They are best-known for the Gravenstein in addition to the fall pippin, Jonathan, golden delicious, red delicious and the Sierra beauty. The family also produces pears.

DEEP ROOTS

The family business dates back to 1876, when Daniel Studebaker purchased the property from another family. In 1880, Studebaker’s son, George, began selling the family’s fruits and vegetables. Then, in 1902, George Gowan and his family moved next door to the Studebakers, resulting in the joining of the two families when Studebaker’s daughter, Alice, married George Gowan’s son, M. Cecil.

By 1922, M. Cecil and Alice Gowan had taken over the orchards. In the 1940s, shortly after World War II, their youngest son, James, and his wife, Josephine, were on board. The couple had seven children, all of whom worked on the farm.

Since James Gowan’s death in 2011, Josephine, now 92, has remained involved in the business now helmed by her fifth child, Donald, and his wife, Sharon. Donald and Sharon met at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, when they were both studying agriculture. They have two children: Jacob, 27, and Mia, 24.

Today, Gowan’s Heirloom Ciders is among a handful of California’s 100-percent estate growers, meaning all fruit is grown, produced and bottled on-site, said Sharon Gowan, adding its hand-crafted premium ciders “literally goes from our trees to a bottle to you.”

Along with producing and marketing its ciders, the Gowan’s business also includes selling apples for juicing, pressing juice from its apples for cider makers, a limited distribution of fresh apples, and a cider club, Sharon Gowan said. She declined to state the company’s annual revenues.

In 2015, after becoming a licensed winery producer, the Gowans added hard ciders to their mix of products. Hard cider is legally a wine, Sharon Gowan explained.

GROWING MARKET

According to a report published earlier this year by Allied Market Research, the global cider market (including apples) was valued at $10.6 billion in 2016, and is projected to reach $16.2 billion by 2023. The apple-based ciders occupied more than half of the share in the global market in 2016, the report said.

“The growth of the global cider market is driven by high demand for gluten-free drinks and rise in preference for low-alcohol beverages,” according to the report. “The natural and fruit base of cider is further supporting the market expansion.”

AMR also noted the industry is challenged by the fact that cider has a high sugar content, a potential issue for consumers increasingly concerned about that issue.

That may be offset, however, by the rise in popularity of cider in the Asia-Pacific and the LAMEA regions (Latin America, Middle East and Africa), providing potential market opportunities for the forecast period, according to the report.

WHERE THE CROPS CAME FROM

“The cider market is maturing and consumers want to know where the apples are grown, too,” Don Gowan, the family’s 5th generation grower, said in a statement. “Consumers are moving toward authentic ciders made from locally sourced apples and they’re demanding the same transparency as they have come to expect in wine labels. If the label says ‘California,’ the apples absolutely should be grown here, just like you would expect in a California wine.”

And that brings up questions around industry regulations for marketing and selling apple-derived products, including ciders, juices and concentrate, Sharon Gowan said.

“People who want to produce cider in California can buy apples from (outside of the state) that were stored in a huge, controlled-atmosphere building that can keep the apples marketable for up to a year, until they need the space for the new crop,” Sharon Gowan said. “If you’re in California and you want to try to lead people to believe that you’re using local fruit, you’ll say, ‘We’re made from apples fresh-pressed in California,’ or just use concentrate and give yourself a local name.”

A lack of transparency can lead consumers to think they’re buying fresh apple-derived products for cheap, a misconception that affects California’s farmers’ economic health, said Sharon Gowan, who also serves as president of the California Cider Association.

California growers and some cider makers that use California fruit are joining the association to push back on mass-market companies that want to claim California origin and drive out the state’s growers, she said.

“The value of protecting the provenance is huge and it’s something that our community needs to protect, and the state, too, because it brings in a tremendous amount of money to everybody,” Sharon Gowan said. “It’s also on the right side of history when it comes to consumers.”

Laura Everett, of Everett Family Farm in Soquel, a town near Santa Cruz, agrees with Sharon Gowan’s assessment.

“It is important to educate the consumer as to where the fruit comes from and how that can affect the final product,” said Everett, a colleague of Sharon Gowan and whose family grows and produces Soquel Cider on its 100-year-old farm. “(It’s) not only varieties of apples but also terroir, microclimates, and growing conditions of that fruit, just as one would do with wine, and how it affects flavor.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

Correction: The original story represented the global cider market in millions of dollars.