Table grapes find new fans with more flavorful varieties

The San Joaquin Valley is the nation’s leading grower of table grapes.
The San Joaquin Valley is the nation’s leading grower of table grapes.

They’re sweet, crunchy and perfect for snacking. But today’s table grapes go way beyond familiar bunches of Thompson Seedless or Red Flame.

These bite-size favorites come in more than 80 varieties, including new hybrids that don’t look or even taste like grapes.

Sample a Cotton Candy, for example. Almost the size of a walnut, this large green seedless grape smacks of spun-sugar sweetness with that uncanny flavor of carnival treats. Or try some Witch Fingers, long and pointy late-season black grapes that have become an instant Halloween hit.

“My favorite is Moon Drops,” said Jim Beagle, CEO of The Grapery in Shafter. “New this year, it’s a long black grape with a cylindrical shape. The taste is outstanding; it’s just what you think the perfect grape should taste like. But it’s that unique shape that grabs your attention.”

September is the peak of table grape season with the widest range of varieties available now. California accounts for almost all of the nation’s domestic table grapes with 90 percent of the crop grown in the San Joaquin Valley. With early grapes grown for spring harvest in Coachella, California’s fresh grape season stretches from May through January.

“In spite of the drought, we had a good growing season,” said Beagle, a longtime grape grower. “Dryer weather means less pests and disease, better-quality grapes.”

So far, the flavor and quality have been excellent, he noted.

“We’re optimistic,” Beagle said. “Just like wine grapes, some years are better than others. This is one of those good years.”

With some cutbacks due to California’s drought-related water restrictions, overall crop size is expected to be “normal,” he added. That’s still huge considering California’s table grape growers are coming off their second-largest crop ever. Last season, growers harvested more than 2 billion pounds of table grapes, valued at $1.76 billion.

Recent introductions such as Cotton Candy and Moon Drops have helped spur demand. So has grape’s image as a healthful snack food. Today, Americans eat on average 8 pounds of table grapes annually, more than triple per capita consumption 40 years ago.

Consumers now want more out of their grapes than size and crispness, Beagle said. That’s led hybridizers and growers such as his company to work on better tasting, more flavorful varieties that aren’t GMOs. The Grapery’s unusual varieties can be found locally in Bel Air and Raley’s supermarkets as well as Whole Foods Market.

“People taste our grapes and they say they didn’t know a grape could taste that good,” he said.

That’s because often the grape varieties found in supermarkets were grown more for longer shelf life and lower production costs than taste, Beagle added.

“Flame and Thompson were great varieties for consumers, but very difficult economically for farmers,” he said. “The whole industry moved toward varieties that were cheaper to produce. Mostly, those grapes were bred for size, not flavor. There’s tremendous pressure in the marketplace to increase size and reduce costs, but that all comes at the expense of flavor.”

The Grapery now has 12 varieties in commercial production with more in the works. “We’re always testing new grapes,” Beagle said. “But it’s a very painstaking and lengthy process with an extremely high failure rate.

“We’re trying to bring flavor back into table grapes,” he added. “Grapes should have wonderful flavor. We’re doing our part.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

California grape pizza

Recipe from the California Table Grape Commission.

1 pound prepared pizza dough

3/4 cup prepared pizza sauce

1 1/2 cups halved California seedless grapes

1 cup diced lean ham

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Divide dough into 8 equal portions. Spread into pizza rounds on baking sheets.

Spread with pizza sauce, sprinkle with grapes, ham and cheese. Bake until dough is lightly browned and cheese melted, about 12 to 14 minutes.

Makes 8 mini pizzas

Italian halibut with grapes and olive oil

Serve over polenta or with sautéed, shredded Brussels sprouts. Adapted from “The Ultimate Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: Harness the Power of the World’s Healthiest Diet to Live Better, Longer,” by Amy Riolo (Fair Winds Press, $22.99, 192 pages).

1 small red chili pepper (sweet or hot)

2 cloves garlic

1 handful fresh basil leaves

2 cups seedless green grapes

Two 4-ounce skin-on halibut fillets (at least 1 inch thick)

Sea salt or kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup water

Stem, seed and finely chop the red pepper; finely chop the garlic (you can add it to the pepper pile). Tear the basil leaves into small pieces. Cut about half of the grapes lengthwise in half.

Season the fish all over with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat; once the oil shimmers, add the fish, skin side up, to the pan, then add the red pepper and garlic, the halved and whole grapes, basil and water.

Reduce the heat to medium-low; cover and cook for about 7 minutes per side or until the fish is white and just cooked through, turning over the fillets once. Transfer the fillets to a warm plate.

Increase the heat to medium-high; cook what’s in the skillet for about 30 seconds to concentrate the flavors. Remove from the heat; taste, and season with salt and/or pepper as needed.

Pour the sauce and fruit over the fish; serve right away.

Serves 2

Breakfast-to-go grape smoothie

Recipe from the California Table Grape Commission.

1 1/2 cups frozen California grapes

1 banana, sliced

1/2 cup vanilla or honey low-fat Greek yogurt

1/2 cup grape juice

1/4 cup wheat flake cereal

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and blend for 1 minute. Serve immediately.

Serves 1

California grape and avocado salad

Recipe by Heather K. Jones for the California Table Grape Commission.

For dressing:

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons honey

1 teaspoon sea salt

For salad:

3 cups red seedless California grapes, halved

2 tablespoons snipped fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon minced jalapeño pepper

2 green onions, sliced

1 ripe avocado, cubed

1/4 cup roasted, salted pumpkin seeds

1/4 cup crumbled Cotija cheese (optional)

To prepare the dressing: Whisk together the oil, lime juice, honey and salt in a large bowl.

To prepare the salad: Stir the grapes, cilantro, jalapeño and green onions into the dressing. Add the avocado and stir again lightly. Sprinkle the top with the pumpkin seeds and cheese, if desired.

Serves 6