Sept./Oct. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by International Fruit Genetics and Randall Barker
Unique flavors, shapes and colors abound
More online: Grape-licious recipes
Plant breeders and fruit growers are working together to provide an increasing number of new grape shapes, flavors and colors.
David Cain has been called a rock star because of the interest he attracts, but don't expect to find the Bakersfield man with a guitar in his hands. Cain, who heads International Fruit Genetics, is more likely to be peering into his microscope or traveling the world talking about plant breeding.
Cain is in high demand because he's helping California farmers rock the produce aisles of America's grocery stores with a rapidly increasing number of new table grape varieties. These are the fresh grapes that go into lunch boxes, salads and snack bowls.
"There's a big shift in grape production going on right now in California and around the world," Cain said, fast talking by mobile phone while on his way to meet with Washington state raspberry growers. What he's doing for table grapes, he's also doing for berries: breeding new varieties that are more enticing for shoppers to pop into their basket—and easier for farmers to grow and ship.
Plant breeder David Cain helps grape growers fine-tune flavor with new grape varieties that are a hit with customers.
The science behind the crunch
International Fruit Genetics has developed new types of grapes that taste like cotton candy, strawberries, raspberries and pineapple, and they come in a wide selection of colors and shapes, he said. Some will be in supermarkets this fall; others will require a couple more seasons to reach commercial production levels.
"We're working with a number of California growers looking to replace some of their older varieties, like Thompson seedless," Cain said.
The company uses traditional plant-breeding methods such as seed selection, cross-pollination and grafting rather than biotechnology, but does incorporate advanced techniques, Cain added.
"For example, we're looking at using molecular markers to improve the breeding process," he said. The technique helps plant breeders locate desired genetic traits in plants and link them through selective breeding. This linkage helps scientists predict whether a plant will have desired genes and be suitable for commercial farming.
San Joaquin Valley table grape farmer Tom Oglesby said there's more going on in the development of new varieties than taste: New varieties also are bred for improved water use and easier harvest.
"That helps farmers and consumers by keeping costs down," he explained.
About 75 percent of California's harvested grapes are made into wine, raisins or juice—with the rest shipped fresh to grocery stores. About 550 farmers grow table grapes in California, producing nearly all the U.S. crop.
California's table grape harvest generally runs from June into November, said Cheri Diebel, head of Pandol Brothers Inc. in Delano. She has been involved in the business side of growing grapes for nearly 30 years.
"What's happening with grapes is like what has happened with apples—lots of new varieties that consumers enjoy. Today, apples are more than just red and yellow," she said.
San Joaquin Valley grape grower Tom Oglesby says shoppers should look for new table grape varieties in grocery stores.
Ready, set, grapes!
Growing great-to-eat grapes is one thing, but selection and storage are important too. Follow these tips from the California Table Grape Commission to get the most from your fresh grapes:
- Select—Look for plump grapes and bunches with green, pliable stems. A powdery-white coating on the grapes is good—it's called bloom and it's a natural substance that protects grapes from moisture loss and decay.
- Store—Refrigerate unwashed, dry grapes and simply rinse before serving or adding to a recipe. Keep bunches loose and not squeezed or compressed to prevent fruit damage. Because grapes can absorb odors, avoid storing them next to items such as onions or leeks.
- Eat—We've got a bunch of delicious grape recipes, just for you:
Frozen grape kabobs
Grape and gorgonzola flatbread