The first thing one notices upon passing through the stone pillars and entering the grounds of King Estate, after taking in the breathtaking sight of the winery at the crown of the hill, is the orchard. Fourteen acres of trees – four of plums, seven of apples, three of pears and one lone fig – line the roadway in greeting, stretching to the south where the road turns. In the spring their blossoms are a joyful harbinger of better weather. In summer light breezes carry the sweet fragrance of ripening fruit, and in the fall workers harvest the trees’ bounty as the leaves change color.
Beautiful as they are, the King Estate orchards have a practical job to do – provide more than 10 tons of fruit. Three tons will go to the King Estate kitchen, and the rest is donated to Food for Lane County, the local food bank. This year King Estate winemakers are experimenting with hard cider as well. Ten thousand pounds of apples were pressed into 1,000 pounds of juice which now sits in barrels, fermenting slightly before it’s bottled.
Apples and plums are dominant in the orchard. Apple varietals are Braeburn, Gala and Golden Delicious, and comprise 7.5 acres. Mirabelle plum trees cover just under 4 acres. Bartlett pears are 2.5 acres, and the Shinko, or Asian, pears are a quarter of an acre.
The fruit will be harvested in August (pears and plums) and September (apples) – often later than our urban neighbors. The estate is located 1,000 feet above sea level, so even though we are just 20 miles away from downtown Eugene, our growing season is different and our harvest will be later.
King Estate is blessed with bounty, and the orchard puts out more fruit than the estate needs for its own purposes. For years King Estate has partnered with Food for Lane County to help feed the hungry. After the harvest, Food for Lane County is invited to bring in gleaners to pick more. The gleaned and donated apples are trucked to Sweet Creek Foods in Elmira where they are made into applesauce that is given away to people in need. Applesauce is especially good for children and seniors – two large demographic groups served by the food bank – because it’s easy to eat and nutritious, too.
The Mirabelle plums yield a very sweet fruit that is smaller than a ping-pong ball. If there’s a late freeze there may be no crop at all. In years past some of the plums have been frozen to be made into jams or compotes in the winter months, when the kitchen is slower and workers have more time to process the fruit. Other years some plums are sold to local producers of artisan cider or liqueur such as Oregon-based Clear Creek Distillery, maker of Eau de Vie of Mirabelle brandy using King Estate plums.
And what about that single fig tree? It’s located in a hot spot on the estate, which the tree likes, but it was never a good bearer of fruit. (In fact this is where altitude comes into play; fig trees in the city will bear fruit but often the cold weather strikes before the figs ripen on the estate.) Every four to five years the tree might yield a modest crop. In the winter of 2012, the tree didn’t survive a big freeze. Garden Manager Jessie Russell cut the tree off at ground level to see what would happen. While not yet bearing fruit, the tree is making a comeback. And the circle of life on King Estate continues.