Story of the Orchard
It was the winter of 1968-69. Apples were first planted in Wenatchee Valley in the early 1900’s and this winter was the coldest on record. Temperatures plummeted to -40 killing most of the orchards in the valley.
Earlier that year, my family purchased its first orchard of Winesap apples and prepared to move in January to our new farm. Little did we know of the impact such a hard winter would have on the trees. Prior to living in the valley, we lived and farmed row crops such as cotton and wheat in Texas.
Our future had now fallen victim to this untimely and unfortunate weather. Instead of harvesting a full production orchard that following year, we cut it down, pulled it out and started over. In hindsight, it was probably the best thing that could have happened. A new apple was on the horizon that changed the apple industry for Washington State. The Red Delicious was born. Its bright red color, sweet flavor, and distinct look captivated the world. We planted both Red and its pollinator Golden Delicious trees.
We were on the forefront during those years planting new dwarfing rootstocks that would begin to produce fruit by the 4th or 5th season which was a great improvement from seeding rootstocks that took 7 or 8 years to produce fruit.
Times were tough in these years. To supplement our family income, my father, Gene Handley, became a journeyman welder. The valley was bustling with new projects to support all the new plantings with water. Main steel trunk lines were being built to carry water from the Columbia river and its tributaries to new orchards across the valley. My dad left his family at home to help care for and tend to the new orchards as he worked both jobs to make ends meet. As kids, most of our playmates saw the summer as a time of camping, swimming, and fishing the local rivers and lakes. We saw it only as work. We changed hand water lines every 12 hours, helped hand thin the small fruitlets for better size and color, summer pruned and propped the laden trees before harvesting all the fruit in the fall. We were relieved from the work only because of school. Most kids hated that summer would end and school would start. We couldn’t wait.
Farming was a family affair. Everyone pitched in and my grandfather Harmond Handley followed and bought and planted orchards in the valley. He used his brand for cattle to name his first orchard, Double H. You will notice that many of our cider names use a lot of H’s (Hard Harvest, Hopped and Hazy, and PinkHeart, Double H Barrel Aged) to honor his legacy.
In 1989, I had finished college and had been working outside of the family farm. My dad was needing help and I wanted a change in environment from the corporate world. I came back and helped him start to replant the orchards we had planted after the big freeze. The Red Delicious was beginning to lose favor in the marketplace and new varieties like Gala and Fuji were gaining a foothold. Pricing demanded that we take such action to keep our family farms financially viable. During this time, I also started to buy land and plant these new varieties.
During the last 10 years, our industry has been moving radically to super high-density plantings of improved gala, fuji, honeycrisp, and club varieties. These new systems and varieties improved our efficiencies and greatly increased our productivity on our land, but it really felt too corporate and business like. Farming became all about the numbers and not the fruit. Trees per acre, buds per tree, bins per acre. All important, but what happened to just good fruit? These changes in behavior made me begin to think. What is going to happen when we all get to that point of maximizing all of our trees and all of our land? Is there going to be a market for all this fruit? We have trouble as an industry selling the 130 million boxes we produce now. I began to reflect on the orchards of the past. Our country has been producing fruit since the pilgrim’s landed on Plymouth Rock. The only difference was that most of that fruit was not produced for fresh consumption but pressed and preserved with fermentation to be enjoyed later. Prohibition played a huge role in the decline of cider making and consumption. It has only been in the last 10 years that a surge of interest in ciders has reemerged. Most of the ciders produced today are using excess dessert fruit from our packing houses that sell apples that we eat fresh. The first apples planted in the US were bittersweet and bittersharp varieties that made good ciders. They didn’t eat very well, but they made ciders that carried complex flavors through fermentation. Sweet apples loose that distinct apple flavor and mouth feel during fermentation.
Andrew, my son and a few of his friends Matthew and David Dobbins started dabbling with making ciders in 2012. With his growing interest in ciders and helping me farm our ranches and his friends to help press and blend, the decision to marry the two was making itself evident.
Most cideries buy dessert juice from processors to ferment and bottle. Our goal is to grow, press, and bottle with an emphasis on Heritage Varieties. We want to control our quality throughout the process. We decided in 2016 to find old English and French bittersweet and bittersharp varieties to propagate and plant with the same high-density growing systems used in today’s modern orchards. High-density, high-dwarfing rootstocks meet old heritage varieties with only one purpose, to grow apples only to press for hard cider. We planted Dabinett, Porters Perfection, Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill, Muscat de Lense, Snowdrift Crab, and Red Fleshed apples. We want to use apples with intention that complement each apple’s unique characteristics. We want you to be able to identify each variety we use in each of our blends. With over 50 acres dedicated to these varieties we believe our future is dependent on the past. Great cider around the table paired with great food and company. A Union of family, friends, and great ciders.