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Where Have All the Great Grapes Gone?

Special to the Times

When asked where to find California’s finest table grapes, a friend who calls himself the Fruit Crank quipped, “Table grapes aren’t even grown here.”

He knows, of course, that California produces roughly a billion dollars’ worth of table grapes a year, 97% of the nation’s crop. That’s the most valuable fresh fruit crop in the state, and growing steadily: U.S. per capita consumption of fresh grapes has tripled over the last 30 years, to 8.2 pounds, a greater increase than for any other major fruit.

Nevertheless, the Fruit Crank insists that classic table varieties, with intense flavors, sensuous textures and distinctive identities, have vanished, leaving only crunchy, neutral-tasting seedless grapes, bred to be inoffensive to the greatest number of customers--nice for a sweet snack, but far from the flower of viticulture. “Very few Americans have ever tasted a real table grape,” he says. “All they get at the market are immature raisin grapes.”

This may be an extreme opinion, but tracing the evolution of California’s grape varieties and growing practices reveals that it has a thread of truth. Ironically, farmers seem to be scrambling harder than ever, using cutting-edge growing techniques, to deliver a commercial product that rarely transcends mediocrity.

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The news isn’t all bad, however. For the first time, breeders are poised to introduce high-flavored seedless grapes.

One of the few places it’s possible to taste how much grapes have changed is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grape collection in Winters, west of Sacramento, where nearly 3,000 genetically distinct accessions cover 11 acres. This collection, part of the National Clonal Germplasm Repository system, is so vast and diverse that even the curator needs a map to navigate the rows of vines on chest-high trellises.

A few weeks ago, Chasselas Dore--the most famous table variety of Western Europe--was ripe, its small translucent golden orbs dashed with russet where exposed to the sun. They were very sweet and thin-skinned, melting exquisitely in the mouth.

Just a few muscat varieties were ready, but by late August the collection will abound with red, yellow and black strains, celebrated for their rich musk aroma and surpassing sweetness. The prototype, the juicy, golden Muscat of Alexandria, which dates back at least 500 years, was the leading variety in Southern California a century ago. It is voluptuous in texture with a tinge of acidity for balance.

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California farmers grew many such delicate grapes in the late 19th century but gradually replaced them with firmer, larger seeded varieties that shipped and stored well, such as Tokay, Emperor and Ribier. They mostly had a mild flavor, but a touch of astringency from the skins added a pleasing counterpoint.

Birth of the Seedless

The triumph of seedless grapes, once known as sultanas (still the term used in other English-speaking countries), took a century of innovations and a shift in taste. They originated in Western Asia, some say in Asia Minor or Afghanistan. Their California history really dates to 1878, when William Thompson, who farmed near Yuba City, obtained cuttings of a superior strain, the Sultanina Bianca, from a nursery in Rochester, N.Y.

At first these small, oval, greenish-yellow grapes, sweet but bland, were dried as raisins. Cultivation of the Thompson Seedless, as they became known, increased greatly after World War I with the immigration of Armenians, who were familiar with similar grapes.

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Although Thompson normally yielded berries too small for table use, growers found that removing a narrow ring of bark around the trunk or canes of the vines increased their size. (A farmer supposedly discovered this practice, called girdling, when he tethered a donkey to a vine and noticed that it bore larger berries.) Results were erratic, however, until the early 1930s, when researchers established the best time for girdling. By the 1940s, Thompson vied with Emperor as the leading variety.

Another breakthrough came in 1957, when scientists found that spraying vines with gibberellic acid, a naturally occurring plant growth hormone, further increased berry size, up to three times as large as untreated grapes. This discovery, and the development of diverse seedless varieties, spelled doom for seeded grapes.

The first seedless grape produced by breeding was Perlette, the work of Harold Olmo, a legendary professor of viticulture at UC Davis. Now 92 and recovering from a stroke in a convalescent home in Davis, he recounted in a recent interview that in the 1930s he sought to hybridize a new seedless grape that would mature before the Thompson, which ripens from late July through September in the San Joaquin Valley.

He scoured the world for useful varieties, and in 1936 crossed Queen of the Vineyard, a vigorous, early-maturing Hungarian muscat, with a variegated strain of Thompson, the Sultanina Marble. After 10 years of tests, he introduced the round, opalescent Perlette, which had a light muscat flavor when ripe, though growers usually picked it very green to take advantage of early-season high prices.

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New Grapes on the Block

Olmo released several red and black seedless grapes in the 1950s and 1960s, but it took years for the public, accustomed only to green seedless grapes, to accept colored strains. “Customers at stores would pick off one or two of the grapes because they didn’t believe that they were actually seedless,” he said. “But we knew the new varieties were good and very productive, and people liked them.”

After the USDA’s 1973 introduction of Flame Seedless, a crunchy, super-sweet red seedless grape, growers started pulling out their colored seeded varieties. The final blow fell in the 1980s, when increased Chilean imports during the winter ruined the market for domestically grown late-season grapes such as Emperor; today more than 90% of the grapes consumed in California are seedless.

The current marketplace, even more than the old, requires intricately choreographed, exacting attention to detail; from the Salton Sea to Fresno, from May to December, farmers must ratchet up their efficiency to stay competitive.

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The California grape harvest begins in early May in the Coachella desert, as growers rush to pick grapes before prices decline or 120-degree days soften the fruit. Louis Gonzalez, 41, manages 1,750 acres of Perlettes, Flames and Thompsons, and as he started his crews picking at 5:15 a.m. on a late June morning, his cheerful alertness barely masked the strain of 18-hour workdays.

“Adrenaline gets me through the season,” he said. “The vineyards are like battlefields.”

Growing grapes under desert conditions is a daunting challenge. To make the vines bloom early, Gonzalez alternates irrigation and water stress and runs sprinklers to lower wintertime temperatures. He has to add to the sandy desert soil virtually every nutrient and mineral the vines require, and he aggressively girdles and “gibbs” them (applies gibberellic acid) to advance maturity.

“Here we don’t grow grapes--we manipulate them,” he said. “We take a crop that breaks bud in February, and by early May we’re harvesting. It’s an incredibly intense growing season.”

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With all these “inputs,” costs are high, and in the past decade competition from Mexican imports has reduced Coachella grape acreage by a third.

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, which produces 85% of the state’s table grape crop, face a different mix of challenges. In general, picking starts in early July at the southern end, near Arvin, and moves north to Madera. However, Sal Giumarra, the patriarch of Giumarra Vineyards, uses every trick in the book to spread out the harvest on the 7,000 acres of table grapes his family farms from Wheeler Ridge to Ducor. That way his 50 crews have time to get to each vineyard and provide a steady flow of product to hit the most lucrative marketing windows.

For each variety, he chooses a range of earlier-and later-maturing locations and gibbing schedules, and carefully prunes the immature bunches to adjust the load of grapes left on the vines (larger loads take longer to ripen).

Most table grapes are not only picked but trimmed, bagged and boxed right in the vineyard. A legendary perfectionist, 76-year-old Giumarra still heads out at 5 a.m. to make sure everything is done right. Recently, on a 103-degree afternoon, he trotted over a 160-acre block of Thompsons east of Edison, monitoring the trimming techniques of each of the workers. With deft fingers, he showed them how to rotate a bunch while snipping off the smaller grapes and the sour, immature ones known as water berries.

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The Heart of Grape Country

The center of the table grape industry is Delano, 30 miles north of Bakersfield. For miles, vineyards stretch to the horizon, often dappled during harvest by mobile field packing stations with folding umbrellas to shield the workers from the broiling sun.

“The hot climate and heavy loam soil mature table grapes well here,” said Martin Zanninovich of Jasmine Vineyards.

Throughout the San Joaquin Valley, most growers are from Italian, Armenian and Slavic families that have farmed grapes for generations. The Zanninoviches immigrated from Hvar, on the Croatian coast, between the late 1890s and the 1930s; there are now 10 branches of the family, several of them prominent grape growers.

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At the peak of harvest in late August, Martin Zanninovich reminisced about White Malaga, a green, seeded grape that led production in the 1920s, before growers discovered how to girdle Thompson Seedless. “White Malaga was really delicious,” he said. “It had more character than Thompson, which is sweet but a little bland.”

As he spoke, he was supervising the harvest of Italia, a seeded grape with a mild muscat flavor which has long been the only commercially grown table muscat. Most are exported or shipped to Eastern markets, to ethnic communities that crave old-fashioned flavor. His family also grows Princess, a promising new seedless hybrid that offers mild muscat flavor when ripe.

The Price of Flavor

Maturity at harvest is the key to flavor, but growers have to walk a fine line between wholesale buyers who demand uniform color and long shelf life, and retail customers who want sweet grapes. Many commercial producers start harvesting at 14 or 15 Brix, a standard scale of sweetness, but acknowledge that grapes taste better at 17 or 18. Some farmers market stands and pick-your-own operations offer grapes registering 20 or even 22.

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“If you want good flavor from Thompsons, you have to get them yellow,” said Ryan Fife, who farms in Visalia, at the Santa Clarita farmers market. “But then they shatter [fall off the bunch], so you have to eat them quickly.”

However, when Thompsons get so ripe that they’re a deep golden amber, they develop a raisiny flavor, and not everyone enjoys that in a fresh grape.

Flavor, whether bland or intense, is a matter of personal preference, and nothing is more controversial than the flowery taste of muscats. Many grape industry leaders maintain that Americans don’t want such high-flavored grapes. “They taste like a skunk smells,” said one wag.

David Ramming, perhaps the leading grape breeder working in California today, has developed commercial varieties such as Crimson Seedless and Fantasy Seedless for the USDA. For the most part he has focused on what the industry wants: large, seedless, neutral-flavored grapes that store well and are easy to grow. But he and his colleague Ronald Tarailo adore the flavor of muscats and have managed to find time to search for the Holy Grail of grapedom: a seedless muscat.

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“When I started, everyone claimed that you couldn’t get a strong-flavored seedless grape,” said Ramming at his office in Fresno. “But we’ve managed to sever the link to the seeds. It’s just a matter of time, controlled breeding and evaluations until we release a fully seedless and strong-flavored fresh-market muscat.”

In addition to two seedless muscat raisin grapes that have already showed up fresh at farmers markets, he has released Princess, which he rates at 4 on a 1-to-10 scale for muscat flavor; by comparison, he pegs Italia at 6.

On a late August morning, Ramming and Tarailo led a tasting tour of their variety block in Fresno. The growers traipsed through the vineyard, sampling a wide range of varieties, but many of the them were most excited by the experimental seedless muscats

Fred Smeds, a farmer from Reedley, tasted a round, red variety now called A61-16. “Wow!” he said. “That has muscat flavor and sugar--the flavor explodes in the mouth.” Tarailo rated it at 8 to 9 on the muscat scale.

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“It has nice eating quality, but we don’t have the crop commercially, year after year,” Ramming said. “It’ll work for farmers markets and backyard growers. It’s already been stolen and grown in Spain.”

A number of large growers have hired breeders such as Ramming and Tarailo to develop proprietary varieties. It’s delicate work. At Sun World International, near Wasco, David Cain, who previously worked at the USDA, explained the technique needed to cross two seedless grapes. All seedless grapes, he noted, have tiny aborted seeds, called “seed traces.”

Using a microscope, a laboratory worker, Christina Ponce, excised the embryo from an immature seed. She grasped it with fine tweezers and put it in an agar growing medium in a test tube.

“It’s like premature babies,” said Cain. “If you nurture them in the lab they live; if you don’t, they die.”

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A Flavorful Future?

In another room, he showed off 11 experimental varieties, including a green grape with the ultra-crunchy texture of an apple and a firm, full-flavored black seedless muscat, which he said Sun World was starting to test market.

The introduction of seedless grapes with old-time flavor may mean even less demand for traditional varieties. Even now, there are just a handful of farms, mostly in Northern California, that still offer them to the public.

Phillips Vineyards, just off Interstate 5 in Lodi, is one of the last bastions of the old guard. On a crisp October morning, David Phillips walked through a vineyard of muscats and Lady Fingers to the Flame Tokays, which his great-great-grandfather started growing in the 1890s, when it was California’s top shipping variety.

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Tasting a bright red, distinctively winy Tokay, he said: “This is the only place in the world where they get that color. That’s because in the summer, it’s in the mid-90s during the day, then it drops into the 50s at night.”

When the Flame Seedless came in, it destroyed the market for Tokay, and most of the few remaining growers send their harvest for juice or wine. Nevertheless, Tokay is one of the vineyard’s best sellers.

“We definitely have customers that seek them out,” Phillips said. “But most of them are elderly and the younger generation don’t want grapes with seeds.”


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