A few months ago, in one of the nerdy produce industry trade magazines we get in the office, I read that my old friend Jim Beagle was now running some table grape vineyards up in Bakersfield. Jim and I go back almost a decade, to when we were both working for a grower and selling clementines at a much slower pace (Jim can attest) than we could pick and pack them. In the time since Jim and I had both left for greener pastures- mine at GROW and Jim with The Grapery.
So, I called old Jim up a couple months ago. After a few minutes of catch up, and commiserating about dreadful employers past, we got around to grapes. It always comes back to grapes. You see, even though Jim and I had met in the citrus business, we both loved grapes. When I first moved to California from the produce market of Chicago it was early July- prime grape harvesting season in the San Joaquin Valley. And the majority of my early grape education that summer was running around to various vineyards with a refractometer measuring the brix of our different varieties of grapes. Princess grapes in Mettler, red globes off Lerdo Highway, Thompsons in Ducor.
I loved it. Every minute. In my mind it was equal parts rancher & scientist. Driving alone down row after row of grapes. Seeing how their size and maturity changed by the week, until it was time to harvest.
Jim and I ended our conversation with a meeting time for me to go up to The Grapery offices and take a tour of the fields. I was especially interested in his Cotton Candy variety. Long ago tested by a grower in Arkansas, and left for dead because the climate wasn’t right, Jim and the folks of Grapery had spent years making it’s vines come to life in the Central Valley.
Now, let’s get this straight- Cotton Candy is not its proper name. It was named as such because when cold, this grape tastes remarkably (some say exactly) like the spun sugar candy you had as a kid at the fair. I would describe the flavor as having heavy muscat and vanilla notes, with the juiciness of a red globe and the texture of a summer royal. But, again, all of that is fruit nerd talk for “it tastes like cotton candy”;)
When we got to the first ranch, I was struck by how immaculate the trellises were. You can tell a lot about the quality of a grape by the condition of the ranch. And this first impression left me curious. You could tell that Jim was proud. He couldn’t wait to get in the rows. He wouldn’t let me just pick my own to taste. Instead taking the bunch in his hand, “nope, nope, nope…here…try this one.”
Sure enough. Cotton candy!
That day I saw red grapes as big as your thumb that had a flavor as deep and complex as a Russian River Pinot Noir. Small black grapes, in scraggily bunches years from being mature enough to harvest that tasted like a concord, but had the crunch and eatability of a red flame.
By the end of the afternoon we were both hot and tired and dusty. I stopped before I got back in the truck and turned to Jim.
“Man, I love grapes.”