By Virginie Boone
In 1964, Sonoma County natives Gail and Warren Dutton bought a 35-acre ranch outside of Graton one year into their marriage to grow apples and wine grapes. The original grapes were French Colombard, but they wisely planted the region’s first 20 acres of Chardonnay in 1967.
A fourth-generation farmer, whose Sonoma County lineage stretched all the way back to 1881, Warren’s family had long grown prunes, pears and walnuts in Santa Rosa, collaborating with Luther Burbank at one point to develop 20,000 prune trees in the Roseland area. He and Gail had both gone to Santa Rosa High and were high school sweethearts who married soon after graduating.
It was Gail who soon realized it would be more profitable to sell produce direct to consumers than let fruit rot, go otherwise unsold or sell for less to local canneries.
And so while Warren focused on moving the family farming business more seriously into wine grapes, Gail operated a fruit stand at 2808 Sebastopol Road west of Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa, selling pears, prunes, apples, dried fruit and gift packs while raising two babies.
“I remember I was changing diapers and selling apples at the same time,” Gail told the Press Democrat’s Tim Tesconi in 1985.
She also wisely created a mailing list to keep in touch with customers, not something most people were doing at the time. It grew to 2,500 customers. Soon she was packaging gift boxes of California produce for shipment “to places where a gift of oranges is as precious as a gift made of diamonds,” said a November 1983 story in The Press Democrat.
“Californians often overlook the idea of sending Christmas fruit gifts back East,” Dutton told the newspaper at the time. “We take it for granted.”
Gail opened the fruit stand in 1969, selling pears when the Dutton’s had an overabundance. She started advertising and sold boxes of fruit for $1 each, operating the stand seven days a week from August through December.
Before long, she was selling homegrown apples, walnuts, dried fruits, jellies, jams, honey, juices and candy. Back then, gift boxes ranged from $3 to $17.50. She ran the fruit stand for close to 20 years, selling it and the surrounding 10-acre property in 1985 as the family continued to grow into more wine grapes and the city of Santa Rosa annexed the property to be developed.
That farm stand’s legacy remains in the form of other successful farm stands and direct-to-consumer farming operations around Sonoma County. Due to her success and entrepreneurial gumption, Gail became a founding member of Farm Trails in 1973, an organization dedicated to connecting Sonoma County residents to local farmstands, lighting the way for others to follow. This was before the widespread advent of farmers’ markets or CSAs.
Sonoma County Farm Trails promotes farmers and educates the public on the importance of local agriculture. The Gravenstein Apple Fair is its signature fundraising event.
Many Sonoma County wineries are Farm Trails members, from Korbel to Jordan, Iron Horse and Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens. So are restaurants like SingleThread, farmers’ markets, bakeries, ranches, orchards and many other kinds of farms, a lovely legacy that stretches from Gail’s fruit stand of the 1960s, 70s and early 80s to today.