Coming Home to Appalachian Apple Country - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Coming Home to Appalachian Apple Country

An apple tree blossomed in the backyard of my childhood home in North Carolina, but its fruit was too bitter to eat. In grade school, we learned about state crops, but that meant tobacco—not edible fruits. Later, I was surprised to realize that my native state ranks as one of the nation’s top apple producers. I hadn’t recognized the possibility that my homeland held, in the orchards or beyond. That changed recently, when I returned to the Blue Ridge Mountains after two decades away, and found myself building a new life in Appalachian apple country.

I was 25 when I blew out of North Carolina with gale force, packing my belongings into just a few suitcases. Settling in California, I found that grapes caught my fancy. I threw myself into the magic and mayhem of fermentation—and of the West Coast itself. My transition into the wine business was a leap, not only geographically but culturally.

I’ve returned to Appalachia to live again and again—drawn as if by ancestral force.

I was born in Mount Airy, the inspiration for Mayberry on the antiquated, aw-shucks Andy Griffith Show. If this sounds like a joke, it’s not—it’s my motherland. For centuries, my Quaker forebears cultivated the surrounding land. They ushered in the Prohibition era, then mixed and mingled with bootleggers, possibly making a little liquor themselves. Later, a wine and agritourism region emerged, and now the local community college offers a respectable viticulture program. My folks moved down the mountain when I was young, but I’ve returned to Appalachia to live again and again—drawn as if by ancestral force.

In my working-class household, we drank iced tea and Pepsi by the liter. Dad stocked our icebox with Keystone Light. (Yes, “icebox”—we didn’t own a proper refrigerator till I was 12.) Special occasions might warrant a jug of Carlo Rossi. Dad also kept a jar of white lightning in the cabinet. When he’d pull it out, he’d tell a tale or two of the great moonshiners. This is perhaps how I began to think about beverage as craft.

Last year, when I packed up my life in California and moved back to these hills, I was not thinking of moonshine or apples. I was thinking of the wildfires and housing insecurity that had vexed me out West. I was seeking a safe haven. I landed in a place dubbed “Appalachian Eden” by The Chicago Tribune. Henderson County, south of Asheville and a couple hours from Mount Airy, grows 80 percent of the state’s apples and is home to 20 orchards, many of which date back a century. 

My heart swelled in a way it hadn’t since the early days of my wine career. To stay hydrated beneath the Southern sun, I bit into crisp, fleshy fruit.

I moved into an old farmhouse in late summer, as gnarly trees grew heavy with apples, drawing hungry bears and tourists. In California, harvest season was central to my life; here, I knew working in the orchards would suit me, so I reached out to a local cidery. Atop a ridgeline with views of distant peaks, I sampled and sorted Mutsu, Ginger Gold, and Winesap. My heart swelled in a way it hadn’t since the early days of my wine career. To stay hydrated beneath the Southern sun, I bit into crisp, fleshy fruit.

When I dug into the history of local orchards, I discovered what my farming ancestors had surely known all along: Southern Appalachia, with its small subsistence farms, has played a key role in maintaining crop diversity, particularly where apples are concerned. Importantly, the Cherokee people of this region developed several breeds of apples, including Nickajack, Alarakee, and others. As the story goes, the Junaluska breed was named for a chief who refused to turn his land over to white settlers because his favorite apple tree was planted there.

Over time, North Carolina’s apple industry has boomed, but also skipped a few beats. During Prohibition, federal agents suspected apples would be processed for alcoholic cider and chopped down entire orchards. Later, in the 1990s, when commercial juice companies canceled contracts with Hendersonville orchards and began outsourcing to China, it dealt a devastating blow to the local economy. The effects remain today, with visible poverty throughout the region and abandoned apple warehouses consumed by voracious Virginia creeper. 

Yet there is still promise in these orchards. Large-scale cider producers like Bold Rock flourish, while indies like Botanist & Barrel experiment with vinous ciders. It will take investment and effort, but this region’s apple industry might just prosper again. As it does, may new light shine on the people, history, and potential of this region, which has too often been reduced to stereotypes and caricatures—like the one depicting my birthplace. 

I’m here to witness this growth, starting with the Arkansas Black tree I’ve just planted in my own backyard.

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