40-year-old orchard offers seventeen varieties of apples to pick.
Story and Photos by Tori Riss
Small white signs alternating with pictures of apples and pumpkins dot the side of the road. Red, yellow and orange leaves paint the side of the mountain. The peaceful scene takes a turn as a traffic-control officer stands in the road, and an electronic sign reads “47” in red lights. That’s how many minutes until drivers reach Carter Mountain Orchard. Crisp weekends bring crowds of families and students from places up to four hours away, all wanting the pick-your- own experience. “Three or four days of the year we hit capacity,” Cynthia Chiles, owner of Carter Mountain Orchard, located in Charlottesville, says.
The peak-crowd season doesn’t begin again until fall, but visitors can start picking April 15th, at which point the orchard opens for daily operations after its winter hiatus. With no guard rail, the drive is accompanied by a sharp drop-off just inches away from the passenger’s side. But there haven’t been any accidents so far, says Chiles, whose family started operating the orchard over 40 years ago. As you reach the top of the road, rows of apple trees extend in every direction. A brick-red barn overlooking all of Charlottesville sits right in the middle of acres of trees and grapevines. Each section is labeled with one of 17 apple varieties: Fuji, Ginger Gold, Gala, Virginia Gold, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Lodi, Rome, Winesap, Stayman, Crispin, York, Albemarle Pippin, Jonagold and Jonathan.
So, which variety is best? “Depends on what each person wants to do with their apples,” says Chiles, who most enjoys the “simple stuff,” like applesauce. Fuji and Pink Lady are among the most popular because of their sweet flavor, but Chiles says apple-pie fans should go for a more tart apple, such as Jonathan or Rome. The apples range in cost depending on variety, and while the prices parallel those at the supermarket, the taste is superior, visitors say. Kendall Drake, a James Madison University student from Portsmouth, spends a Sunday apple-picking for the first time. “I’m in search of the perfect apple, but I don’t know how to get to it because they don’t have ladders,” Drake says. Visitors are expected to pick only what they can reach, as no tools are provided for assistance to ensure visitor safety. All of the exemplary apples hang high overhead at the tip-tops of the trees, while the rejects cover the red clay ground. The gleam of a perfect red apple catches Drake’s eye. Looking over, she sees a young boy with a bright idea. “I’m about to climb a tree like that kid.” After approaching the tree from every angle and fighting through branches, she realizes that there are none sturdy enough to help her up. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to swing that one,” she laughs.
Employees practice a superior technique when picking the best apples, using a “real gentle twist,” Chiles says. “If you have to yank it, it’s probably not ripe.” The orchard uses the “Brix meter” to determine the sugar content in apples before deciding if they’re at peak ripeness. This process measures the amount that light bends when it passes through a liquid. A refractometer takes fruit sap from “whatever part you eat” and places the fruit’s density on a scale to determine ripeness, otherwise known as its Brix. Jennifer Huynh, a JMU student from Annandale, heads for her favorite, Fujis, along with her roommate Caroline Crane, a senior justice studies major from Annapolis. An employee stops them, explaining that many areas were already picked out, so they need to continue up the path after reaching the terrace. “I don’t like the sound of that,” Huynh says as they make their way up.
Their eagerness fades as they pass a sign reading, “Keep on going up the road…almost there,” along with a smiley face. Reaching the very top of the hill, Crane and Huynh dart into the trees to begin their search, but a few seconds in, they still see no sign of apples. They keep walking, their pace getting quicker, until finally, apples start to appear on every tree. They suspect that apple hoarders were to blame for the clear-out in the areas closer to the main path. The number of visitors attracted to Carter Mountain isn’t as obvious when wandering through the trees, though. Instead, it’s the prepackaged products that call for their own lines. People swarm the barn area to buy products such as apple pie and butter, and cider slushies. Visitors can also try Bold Rock, a local hard cider in which 90 percent of the apples used come from Carter Mountain Orchard. A sweet-smelling warmth surrounds the concessions stand, which usually has to be manned by about five cashiers and some additional helpers. Behind the counter, clear plastic containers of their award-winning hot cider doughnuts fly off the shelves. Carter Mountain staff restock as fast as they can in an attempt to meet the high demand. “They’re so simple [to make], it’s not even funny,” Chiles says. “We make them all by hand.”
Simply substituting apple cider for water in the normal doughnut recipe leads to a hit, selling thousands of doughnuts on a typical fall day. “I’ve probably waited over half an hour before,” Huynh says. She explains that the doughnuts are worth every minute. “They melt in your mouth.” “It’s impossible to smell them and not buy at least a dozen,” Crane says. She immediately pries open her plastic container of donuts. Drake orders a hot cider, and of course, an apple-cider donut. Her first impression? “Look at this little rinky-dink donut.” These sugar-coated donuts aren’t much bigger than a hockey puck, but they deliver in flavor. “It was heaven-sent — not too sweet and just the right amount of apple cider flavor.” What’s next for the apples she’s bringing home? Drake has big preparation plans. “I’ll slice ’em up and put some peanut butter on them,” she says.