A Visit to the Philo Apple Farm

Apples grown the old-fashioned way.

You might not know Sally and Don Schmitt by name. But you know of them by their legacy.

They were the original owners of the French Laundry in Yountville. They transformed what was once variously a bar, laundry, brothel, then run-down rooming house into a destination restaurant with a prix fixe menu even back then that attracted wide acclaim and visits from the likes of Julia Child and Marion Cunningham. Opened in 1978, Don was the maitre d’ and Sally was the cook, serving up five French-comfort-style courses that topped out at $46 per person.

Entrepreneurs and pioneers, Sally and Don Schmitt.

In 1994, after a number of restaurateurs eyed the property with interest, the couple decided to take the chance to sell it to a then down-on-his-luck, young chef named Thomas Keller.

As Sally deadpans now, “That turned out pretty well, didn’t it?”

The Schmitts ran the original French Laundry restaurant. Here is their menu on opening night in 1978.

Sally, 79, and Don, 81 have a gift for seeing the potential in things most folks would turn their backs on.

After selling the French Laundry, they went on to refurbish yet another run-down property — a 30-acre swath in Philo in Mendocino County near the Navarro River. They turned what was once a decrepit sharecroppers farm into a thriving biodynamic farm specializing in heirloom apples. The Philo Apple Farm is so picturesque now that it’s a favorite setting for retailer Pottery Barn to do its catalog shoots.

On a drizzly fall day recently, I had a chance to tour the charming farm with its chickens, horses and 9o-year-old trees. It’s now run by one of the Schmitt’s daughters, Karen, and her husband, Tim Bates.

The 30-acre apple farm that the Schmitts lovingly restored.

Don and Sally, who are now retired, still visit the farm regularly. They gave me a tour of the property, where 80 varieties of apples grow with names like Ashmead’s Kernal, Esopus Spitzenburg, Pink Pearl and Roxbury Russett.

The picturesque farm, where Pottery Barn often shoots its catalog photos.

Tree branches shaped into arches.

As Don explains, Sebastopol is Gravenstein country; and Philo is Golden Delicious land. Over the years, of course, Golden Delicious has gotten a bad rap as the bimbo of apples — all looks, no substance.  Standard supermarket ones are usually kept in cold storage so long that they lose flavor and turn mushy. But the Golden Delicious at the Philo Farm are picked ripe. The crisp air also results in thinner skins. They have crunch and a delicate perfume. To distinguish them from run-of-the-mill Golden Delicious, the Schmitts call them, “Philo Golds” instead. They’re the apples that you’ll find gracing the tarte tatin at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, too.

You can cut off a sample for tasting.

A bin of Philo Golds.

The Philo Farm apples are all picked by hand, packed by hand, and never waxed. They are sold locally in Mendocino County and in San Francisco, including the Saturday farmers market at the Ferry Building.

The apples also form the basis of other products made at the farm in small batches, including bottled apple juice, apple cider vinegar, apple balsamic vinegar and apple-quince chutney.

“I didn’t care for apple juice till I came here,” says Don. “We blend ours like wine.”

The self-serve farm stand.

The farm also grows different varieties of quince and pears that are sold at the farm. Additionally, the apple products can be found at Sunshine Foods Market in St. Helena, Cowgirl Creamery’s store in the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco and the Farmhouse Mercantile in Boonville, also owned by the Schmitt family.

Or course, the best way to appreciate the taste of these apples is to visit the farm. You can even take cooking classes there, which used to be taught by Sally, but now are overseen by her daughter. Four inviting cottages, each one different from the other, are available for guests to stay overnight, too.

An apple with wonderful snap that's native to the Anderson Valley.

The beauty of Sierra Beauty apples.

Another unusual variety.

Since it’s a working farm with many chores to be attended to, there’s not always someone around manning the open-air farm stand at the entrance. So, it’s all done on the honor system. Bins of apples are marked by variety and price. There’s even a cut apple with a knife at each one in case you want to try a taste beforehand. Weigh your bag of apples, mark it down in a ledger, then leave the money in a box on the counter. It’s that simple.

And it’s the kind of old-fashioned integrity this farm and its founders are all about.

Tomorrow: An Apple Recipe from the Philo Apple Farm

More: Last Year’s Holiday Party at the French Laundry

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  • Wow, I didn’t know that they were the original owners of French laundry! Those apples look so

  • What a great farm! Thanks for taking us on a tour and sharing a bit of the owners’ history! It’s going on “my list!”

  • my in-laws love this place and raved about a cooking class they took there years ago. It’s a bit of a drive, but it’s almost whale watching season along the coast, my favorite time for a visit and those apples look delicious! Happy holidays foodgal!

  • I love this post–how interesting to read about the original FL owners! And now I want to go apple picking…

  • What an idyllic orchard! I wish there were more places like this still in existence… It’s so sad that they’re a rare sight these days.

  • Wow, I grew up in Napa and had no idea French Laundry had a life before Thomas Keller. Love small farms like this and the fact that they use the honor system is even better:-) Reminds me of this little pick your own strawberry place along 1 north of Santa Cruz I used to go to.

  • This place looks so charming! What a nice treat to get a tour and meet this couple. They sound lovely.

  • Had the great pleasure of eating once at “The French Laundry” when Sally and Don owned it. It was wonderful. I also took some cooking classes at the Apple Farm with Sally, Don and Karen and have stayed on the farm. It was fabulous and my daughter still remembers it as one of her favorite trips.

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  • What a wonderful place to visit. I used to love going to apple orchards with my parents when I was a little girl. As an adult i now have my own apple trees and they give me so much joy–though the apples aren’t as beautiful at the ones at this farm.
    Lovely post.
    *kisses* HH

  • Wow, I had no idea there was an apple farm up there. I love Navarro winery so I’ll have to swing by next time.

  • This post was an absolute joy to read. Apples are my all-time favorite fruit so I love visiting orchards…it must have been pretty fantastic to be given a tour by Don and Sally! I love how they’ve refurbished properties…sounds like they’re great at what they do and they really take pride in their work!

  • I took a weekend cooking class a few years ago – loads of fun. The property is really charming, like west coast version of what I imagine Martha Stewart’s property is like! Karen said it’s been the site of a few Pottery Barn catalog shoots. I’ve also seen the juice for sale at the Fatted Calf at the Oxbow Market in Napa.

  • I really didn’t realize that the “French Laundry” was the “French Laundry” before Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry”. Love that menu… $12.50/ person for 5 courses? The orchard brings back memories of back home (Wisconsin)… hey it’s not all about cheese! They have beautiful farms and orchards! And, it’s refreshing to see the honor system still being used in this day and age.
    Really enjoyed this Carolyn! Ciao.

  • There’s something so charming about an honour system purchase! 😀 And what a pedigree! Beautiful photographs Carolyn-just magical!

  • There’s nothing better than an apple picked ripe off the tree. There is just no comparison to supermarket apples.

    I remember being skeptical about eating a Red Delicious grown by a farm in Watsonville – I despise supermarket Red Delicious. But this one, picked ripe that morning, was amazingly complex.

    I wish we could have gone Fall apple picking before we left. It’s one of the things we want to do when we get back to the Bay Area.

  • Aren’t they the sweetest?! I didn’t know they were the owners of French Laundry, thanks for sharing that. What beautiful and crisp-looking apples they have. I just wish I was in that part of the world right now x

  • Both the story and your photos are so beautiful and romantic. Thank you for sharing all of this. I miss a good apple grove. My in-laws lived near a beautiful one in France but only one we could spy from the road, not a gorgeous farm to visit and enjoy like this.

  • So interesting. I love this story! Happy Holidays Carolyn!

  • Thank you so much for introducing us to this place. I am definitely going to stop by the next time I am in Mendacino.

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