By David Karp
Special to the Los Angeles Times
October 7, 2011
One of the rarest but greatest pleasures of farmers markets is encountering passionate collectors who sell a wide range of rare fruit varieties normally grown only at specialty sites such as germplasm repositories and agricultural experiment stations. There's no better example than Patrice Dreckmann of Rainbow Heights Farm & Nursery, who grows 50 varieties of muscat grapes and 43 varieties of figs just south of Temecula.
Unlike most modern varieties of grapes, which are generally sweet and crunchy but have a mild, "neutral" flavor, muscat varieties have a distinctive floral aroma, much beloved by aficionados. Not everyone is fond of this flavor, however, and since all but a few recently developed muscat varieties have seeds and a relatively soft texture, they are disdained by growers and marketers of fresh grapes. Only the classic Muscat of Alexandria, the Pirovano Italia hybrid and a few modern seedless varieties such as Sweet Scarlet and Princess are grown commercially in California for the fresh market.
But there are hundreds, even thousands of muscat varieties in existence, many of them with unique, alluring aromas, like the orange-flower scent of Muscat Jésus. Dreckmann, who was born to two French doctors in Chile in 1943, learned to love the muscat flavor in that country, where the fruit is used for making wine and pisco brandy and is also enjoyed fresh.
After getting his college degree in Chile, he earned a doctorate in plant ecology at the University of Paris-Sud in Orsay. He married Mireille, a skin care specialist, in France, and then worked in many countries, particularly in Latin America, as an agribusiness consultant, crop adviser and developer of irrigation systems. After moving to Southern California in 1987, he became tired of the constant travel required for consulting, and in 2000 he established his own nursery on a 44-acre property in the Rainbow area of Fallbrook, near the northern border of San Diego County.
At first Dreckmann specialized only in ornamental plants, such as hibiscus, angel trumpets and sage, which he sold wholesale to other nurseries. A few years later he started shifting to growing fruit trees, mostly grapes, figs, quinces, mulberries and pomegranates. He now has several hundred varieties, and fruits and fruit trees account for half of his sales.
Beyond the curiosity and acquisitive instinct common to all collectors, his main purpose in assembling so many varieties was to find which ones grow best in the climate and soil conditions of Southern California.
"Many grape varieties that do well in the Napa Valley are very poor performers in our area because it's too hot in the summer or there's not enough winter chill," says Dreckmann, who speaks with a slight accent and retains a European blend of courtliness and intensity. "They each require individual horticultural practices."
Pierce's disease is a serious problem for many grape growers in the Temecula area, but, "knock on wood," he says, the prevailing wind usually blows the insect vector of the disease away from Dreckmann's vineyard, which so far has not been infected.
He originally obtained budwood from UC Davis for 50 varieties of muscats and 26 hybrids of American-type and European grapes. Initially he raised his vines primarily for propagating nursery plants; any fruit that resulted was a byproduct. But as the vines matured and he learned how to grow them, he started selling his grapes to restaurants in his area, such as Meritage in Temecula and Vincent's in Escondido.
With the aid of his son-in-law, Lloyd Brown, he also sold at several farmers markets in San Diego, but Brown recently moved to England to coach the British Olympic archery team, so Dreckmann now sells his plants and fruit at just three nearby markets, in Temecula on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and at Cal State San Marcos on Wednesday afternoons. The two marketing channels work well together, he says, because the restaurants gladly take what he is unable to sell at farmers markets.
Dreckmann has only a few vines of each variety, so at a typical farmers market at this time of year he might bring 5 pounds of each of 10 to 15 varieties. That doesn't exactly make him a category killer in grape sales, but unless you visit the grape collection at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Winters, Calif., near UC Davis, it's unlikely that you'd get a chance to taste Malaga Rosada, which has large, round, pink berries with intense muscat flavor; Moscatel Rosado de Talca, which is used for making pisco in Chile; or Sultana Moschata, which has small berries and mild muscat flavor but is incredibly sweet.
His other specialty is figs, and, as with grapes, he sells unusual varieties far beyond the half-dozen available commercially. He has Violette de Bordeaux, which has small fruits but is beloved by connoisseurs for eating fresh because it offers intense flavor and enough acidity to balance the sweetness typical of the fruit. He also offers the gorgeous Panachée, which has green-and-yellow striped skin and red flesh like strawberry jam; and Beall, which has claret-brown skin and amber pulp with surprisingly rich flavor for a large-fruited variety. As with grapes, Dreckmann's fig season typically runs through the end of October or into early November.
Earlier in the year he has 15 varieties of mulberries. Coming up he'll have quince, including Turkish varieties rare here, and greenhouse-grown, large, orange-yellow-fruited passion fruit, from a species (Passiflora alata) prized in Brazil and known as maracuja doce.
But grapes are clearly Dreckmann's first and greatest love. As he says, explaining why he has spent so much time and money figuring out how to grow obscure muscats in Southern California, "It's a flavor that ingrains in your subconscious, and you're unable to eat any grape that doesn't have a strong flavor."
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