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  • Debbie Arrington / darrington@sacbee.com

    This big white peach turned out to be a Sugar Giant, and it lived up to its name when tasters judged it for flavor, appearance and texture.

  • Debbie Arrington / darrington@sacbee.com

    Tasters slice and reach for pieces of what turned out to be a Suncrest peach at the Dave Wilson Nursery's annual blind tasting.

Seeds: Delicious revelations, some head-scratchers, at Dave Wilson Nursery

Published: Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3CALIFORNIA LIFE
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 20, 2012 - 8:31 am

This literally was fruit like I never tasted before.

For three hours, I sliced, chewed and reviewed peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots and assorted blends.

Some bites left me baffled – was it a peach or plum or both? Others made me want to add more trees to our backyard mini-orchard as soon as possible – I couldn't get enough.

And just wait until you try a "Pluerry." That was a revelation.

Along with about 40 other tasters, I evaluated the picks of 2012 – 36 varieties of fruit that made up Dave Wilson Nursery's formal blind tasting.

Located in Hickman, near Modesto, Dave Wilson Nursery ranks among the nation's premier fruit tree sources. Serving commercial growers as well as backyard gardeners, the nursery is best known as the sole distributor of the Pluot, the trademarked plum-apricot hybrid that now outnumbers plums in many markets. It also has brought us the NectaPlum, Peacotum, Aprium and other new fruits that expand our palate as well as our fruit calendar.

Every summer since 1993, the nursery hosts formal blind tastings to evaluate its fruit in eight categories for appearance, texture and flavor. That adds up to more than 44,000 individual ratings.

"The tastings are invaluable to our progress," said Robert Woolley, the nursery's owner. "It provides us a way to objectively evaluate fruit quality without any hype."

Most of the fruit varieties were developed by Modesto's Zaiger Genetics, which is constantly trying to improve on a good thing.

"It takes 14 years from hybridizing to release," explained Tom Spellman of Dave Wilson Nursery. "Many of the varieties we tasted are still being evaluated. They're probably three to five years away, before they'll be available for the home gardener."

Some already have been introduced to commercial growers, and will be offered to the public soon. Those include Honey Royale, a very large and flavorful yellow nectarine that will hit retail nurseries in 2014.

Old favorites and heirloom varieties are mixed in with the new hybrids for comparison. The tasters don't know which is which until after they write down their scores. Some hybrids are so new they don't have names, just code numbers.

It wasn't all stone fruit. We crunched an unnamed pale-yellow apple with skin almost as white as its crisp, pear-like flesh.

"We're not sure what we'll do with it," Spellman said. "It's something different."

Most of the tasters come from retail nurseries throughout the Central Valley, but also include rare-fruit growers from California and Arizona.

Among the tasters were Keith and Jennifer Miner, owners of Wheatland's Flower Hut Nursery.

"I really enjoy it," Jennifer Miner said of the tasting. "We're always looking for ways to extend the summer fruit season. People think peaches are over in July, but there are varieties that go late into September. You can have fresh fruit almost every month."

A veteran of these formal evaluations, Keith Miner is a master fruit taster. His all-time favorite among the Dave Wilson offerings was easy to pick out.

"Arctic Jay white nectarine," he said without hesitation. "It's the best stone fruit I've ever had. Every year, it doesn't disappoint."

Arctic Jay, a Zaiger hybrid, is the top-rated fruit from 19 years of tastings.

Some old-school yellow peaches – such as Suncrest, O'Henry and dwarf Hale Haven – continue to hold their own.

But some of the hybrid white peaches and nectarines were outstanding for both size and flavor. Sugar Giant, an appropriately named white peach with flesh the color of butter, tasted as juicy as its yellow cousins but had a super-sweet finish. (Look for it in markets in 2014.)

The crosses tend to have more sugar and flavor than their parents. Emerald Drop, a bright-green Pluot with orange-gold flesh, smacked of honey with an apricot zing. This fruit can stay ripe on the tree for weeks before harvest and, unlike most stone fruit, bears heavily without much winter chill, Spellman said.

Spice Zee – a NectaPlum cross – looks like a huge white nectarine but smells like cloves. Its flavor is equally complex.

But it was the Pluerry – a plum-cherry cross – that got the tasters buzzing. Dave Wilson Nursery will release its first Pluerry variety, Sweet Treat, to the public next year.

We tried a yet-unnamed Pluerry, the size of an apricot but shiny and emerald green with a cherry-red blush. Inside, the yellow- orange flesh smelled like a Santa Rosa plum – but tasted like a Royal Ranier cherry. The combination of look, taste and scent made it sensational.

Many more hybrids are in the fruit pipeline, Spellman said.

"We're working on extending the apricot season," he said. "Our goal is to have apricots from April 15 until Oct. 1. We just tasted two stellar white-flesh apricots with Armenian parentage that ripen in August. There will be some incredible apricots coming soon."

I can't wait.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington



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