Dry Creek Peach and Produce is the last devoted orchard in Sonoma County.
In Korea, the peach is honored among the 10 immortal plants and animals of mythology, and is believed to help chase away unwelcome spirits. In China, its kernels are still used in traditional medicine to move the blood and ease inflammation; in ancient times, its limbs were also relied upon to scare away spirits. T.S. Eliot used the peach to connote female sexuality in his aching epic, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Duane Allman launched a Southern rock craze when he said, “Every time I’m in Georgia, I eat a peach for peace,” and then named an album from the phrase.
Recent research from the Washington State University indicates that peach extract can cause tumor cells to “commit suicide.” The redder the peach, the more cancer-fighting it is now thought to be. And that lovely aroma, so delicate and appealing and purely peachy? It’s composed of 80 different elements.
From myth to health to love to sex to rock ‘n’ roll, this is one weighty little fruit, and it used to dominate the orchards of Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Valley with other stone fruit, like prunes.
Today, there is only one peach orchard of any significance left in Dry Creek, the eponymous Dry Creek Peach and Produce, owned by Gayle Okumura Sullivan and husband Brian Sullivan. While most of the valley has been replanted to grapes, Dry Creek Peach continues the old ways in raising this ravishing fruit.
Because here’s the thing about peaches: Unlike bananas or even tomatoes, peaches don’t ripen once picked. They might soften, but they don’t continue to produce sugars. Meaning: raising peaches is time-intensive, hands-on, darned hard work.
When Alice Waters serves one perfect peach with a knife for dessert at Chez Panisse, it comes from Dry Creek Peach.
With six-and-a-half acres to farm and nearly 1,000 trees, the Sullivan’s land produces roughly 30,000 tons of peaches in a good year.
When Alice Waters serves one perfect peach with a knife for dessert at Chez Panisse, it came from here. When asked, Waters also told the New York Times that one of the Sullivan’s peaches would be on her menu if she had to choose a last supper.
Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen, Campo Fina, and Scopa are customers. So is John Ash. San Francisco’s acclaimed A16 restaurant does an annual dinner based entirely on the Sullivan’s farm production. There’s something about these peaches.
The fact that they’re handpicked as each variety comes into peak has something to do with it.
“It’s a labor-intensive crop,” Gayle says. “You have to prune every branch of every tree every fall. And you’re up on ladders and it takes hours per tree, and the same thing with the thinning. And then, it’s highly perishable. I mean, you have to move it. We pick ripe so it does not last. You have to have everything in place. But after 14 years, we’ve got a pretty good system.”
Gayle and Brian—she was in technology marketing, he is still in finance—bought Dry Creek Peach and Produce in 2000 after the birth of their son, Patrick. In the deal, they were fortunate enough to inherit farm manager Eusebio Sayago. “He’s awesome,” Gayle says enthusiastically. “And he stayed with us. Everyone who works on our farm is part of his family, so it’s really two families here.”
Planting the orchard to grapes like most of their neighbors have done never occurred to the Sullivans. “We never looked to grow grapes,” Gayle says. “I feel like there are incredible vineyards here and people who have grown up with it who are sixth generation. It’s in their blood. That’s not what we wanted to do here. And peaches grow well here.”
Harvest began on Memorial Day weekend and continues through late September with 30 different varieties ripening throughout the summer. Dry Creek Peach and Produce fruit is certified organic, hand-picked, and packed in single layers, while larger commercial outlets run the fruit, Gayle says, like “balls” through sorting and washing machines. Her produce is simply too delicate.
“We’re small enough,” she explains of the intensive labor her and the Sayago families spend on the orchards, “and it’s the only way you get really flavorful fruit and—it’s the only way you get tree-ripened fruit.”
The Sullivans inherited a traditional farm stand on the property from the former owners. Set smack amid the trees, it is open for business Wednesday and Friday-Sunday, from noon to 5pm until mid-September. When the harvest is too large for their many restaurant and farm stand customers, they sell to local grocers like Shelton’s in Healdsburg.
When asked if she ever wearies of the fruit, Gayle laughs.
“That’s what’s nice about the season,” she says. “There’s a start and a real stop. The length of time we’re in-season is much shorter than not. By the end, I’ve had a lot, but when it starts again, I can’t wait for that first Rich May peach. I’ve learned to moderate myself and not just gorge on them.”
“It is a very fragrant, very subtle, very seasonal fruit,” she continues. “There’s just nothing like a real peach in the summer.”
Drink A Peach
Dry Creek Peach Bellini
Adapted from the Hotel Cipriani/Harry’s Bar in Venice
1/3 c. water
1/3 c. sugar
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 lb. ripe white peaches, pit but not skin removed
A handful of fresh raspberries for color
Puree all ingredients and strain. At this stage, you can pour the mixture into a Ziploc bag and freeze for future use. If you are serving immediately, pour into a glass pitcher and add a bottle of Prosecco. Stir lightly to mix. Serve in chilled Champagne glasses.