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Vintage California Cuisine: 300 Recipes from the First Cookbooks Published in the Golden State


Few Americans Mourn the Passing of Grapes With Seeds

Coming Soon: a New Seedless Muscat
The Emperor Flunks Chile Challenge

By Mark Thompson

Schletewitz Family Farms, of Sanger, in the central San Joaquin Valley of California, had four types of grapes for sale on its table at the Saturday morning farmers market in Santa Barbara at the end of August.

Illustration: Wendy Bailey

'My guess, based on all the people I know, is that they just don’t like spitting seeds,' says a farm adviser, explaining why seedless grape varieties are taking over  the marketplace

Grape Links

The University of California's Fruit & Nut Research and Information Center's Web page has a long list of grapes sites on the Internet.

Why California farmers are so relieved that the 1997 harvest is ahead of schedule.

There were Red Flames, Thompson Seedless and the same grape in miniature, called Thompson "old-fashioned," grown on vines that hadn’t been girdled. The fourth was the Red Globe, described on the label as "the biggest table grape on earth" and a variety that comes "with seeds at no extra charge."

The quip about free seeds was a joke, of course. Most Americans would pay more for grapes devoid of seeds. Grape breeders have obliged, releasing a steady procession of seedless varieties to go with the Thompson Seedless, the granddaddy of all seedless grapes. The Red Flame was introduced in the 1970s, and it is now number two in the U.S. market, helping push the seedless market share to 80 percent, says Sayed Badr, a professor in the Viticulture and Enology Research Center at California State University in Fresno.

The Red Globe is fairly rare in the American marketplace for another reason besides the fact that it has seeds. Most Red Globes are exported to Asia, where they command a much higher price than Americans care to pay for grapes with seeds. Their appeal is that they are huge, with each grape as much as two inches in diameter and tipping the scales at up to a whopping three-quarters of an ounce, double the weight of most other varieties.

The Red Globe has caught on in Australia in a big way, in part because of its attraction as a crop to export to Asia. First introduced to Australia from California in 1990, it now accounts for 95 percent of all grapes exported from Western Australia. But it has also won more respect domestically than in the United States, accounting for 40 percent of all table grapes sold in Perth.

Grape connoisseurs with European tastes might lament the passing of seeded grapes – as did Patrick Farjas, a French chef now cooking in the San Francisco Bay area, in an interview with In Season last fall. But few Americans are mourning the demise of seeded varieties.

Americans want a grape with a crunchy texture and with enough of a quotient of acid to lend a slightly tart edge to their sweetness. They also demand grapes without seeds. "My guess, based on all the people I know, is that they just don’t like spitting seeds," explains Bill Peacock, a farm adviser and grape specialist with the University of California’s cooperative extension service in Tulare County.

The share of the table grape market held by seedless varieties is bound to creep steadily higher as grape scientists prepare to release seedless varieties of types of grapes that heretofore have usually come with seeds.

Most varieties of muscat grapes, for example, have seeds, though Dr. David Ramming, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grape scientist in Fresno, hopes to change that. Muscats have a "wild, sometimes kind of grassy, pungent taste," says Ramming. The few seedless muscats now available have other drawbacks, such as a South African variety with a texture that’s too soft for American tastes.

Concord grapes, the most aromatic of all grapes with a distinctive "Labrusca" flavor that characterizes Welch’s grape juice and most grape jelly, have seeds. A few varieties with Labrusca flavoring, such as the Mars and Venus, developed in Arkansas, are seedless, save for an occasional, noticeable aborted "seed." But they won’t necessarily do well in California, says Ramming.

Ramming released one of the most promising new varieties of table grape for California farmers last year: the Autumn Royal, which is crunchy and "black," as grapes that range from purple to dark blue are called in the trade. He calls it "mostly seedless" because "in some conditions and years it has a large aborted seed." Most consumers chomp it down unaware, but in taste tests enough consumers noticed it that Ramming was afraid some would cry foul if it were labeled seedless.

The Autumn Royal is a late-season grape, harvested in October in California. Only a few other seedless black varieties are now on the market, including the Fantisay and a variety developed in Australia called the Black Marroo, both of which were spotted in the Santa Monica Farmers Market in late August.

The Autumn Royal may help California farmers stem the encroachment of Chilean grapes at the tail end of the California harvest. The California grape season is extraordinarily long, starting in early May with the first varieties from the Coachella Valley in the desert south of Palm Springs and extending all the way through October with late varieties from the Central Valley, such as the Crimson Seedless and the Autumn Royal.

But Chilean grape growers, who several years ago didn’t start shipping their product north until around Christmas, are extending their season, too, by pushing grapes into new areas of their diverse country. They are now able to provide Americans with the Flame Seedless grapes that they so love in October, long after the last of the Red Flames have been harvested from California vineyards.

The foreign competition has heated up the race to develop new late-season varieties for California that are good enough to withstand the Chilean challenge. One of California’s old October varieties, the Emperor, illustrates what will happen to varieties that aren’t up to snuff. Emperors used to be grown on 20,000 acres in California. The acreage is now down to 8,000, Badr says.

Copyright 1997 In Season