FoodPaths - September, 2012
The Branded Grape
Jack Pandol, Grapery, Kern County, CA.
There’s something special happening in the vineyards. Not the vineyards of wine and romance – but vineyards laden with innovative artisan table grapes and unique new flavors bearing names like Witch Fingers®, Cotton Candy®, Sweet Celebration®, and Sweet Surrender®.
Grapery, founded in 1996 by Jack Pandol, grows and develops new varieties of artisan table grapes. With his partner, Jim Beagle, Grapery is bringing innovative flavor profiles, shapes, and textures of table grapes to consumers. The initiative, developed through a decade long breeding program, is “bearing fruit,” positioned to shake up the global table grape marketplace.
California alone produces about 98 per cent of the table grapes in the United States, accounting for roughly 100 million cases. About 40 per cent of the crop is exported. U.S. per capita consumption averages 8.4 pounds person. The fruit most of us know as conventional table grapes is commonly described by three colors – green, red and black. In our flavor-driven culture, a new era for the classic table grape is about to begin. Make way for The Branded Grape.
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With roots in the Napa Valley, I have attended dozens of wine tastings. I have never, however, attended a table grape tasting, a private one at that! Led by renowned scientist, Dr. David Cain, whose name is synonymous with creativity and innovation in plant breeding, I was about to get a taste of “the future grape.” Inside a simple farmhouse in the heart of Delano, CA. a long table was set with eight grape clusters, some about to enter the commercial marketplace, others, new cultivars in the tasting and testing pipeline.
First, a brief review:
- The majority of grapes – wine or table -- are derived from the same species Vitis vinifera (common grape vine).
- Wine Grapes are small, round, mostly seeded, and soft. The flavor comes from the skin and the pulp just below the skin, with berries, skin and seeds crushed to extract maximum flavor from the juice.
- Table Grapes have large, firm, (mostly) seedless berries; their visual appearance is critical. For centuries the taste of table grapes has been considered “neutral.” Until now…
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As the tasting began, we moved from right to left, flavors ranging from mild to strong, Dr. Cain offered a short course in the grapes before me. “…Muscat aroma, sweet and floral… can you taste how the sugar surfaces nicely? Try this one… it combines the Muscat with a Concord… lots of floral traces, lots of crunch… here’s a green variety of Witch Fingers…the next one is a cylindrical shape of Sweet Sapphire… people like crunchy grapes…make sure you try this one… it’s like a Concord with no seeds. Concords are tough to eat… the skin is tough…when it separates, the flesh pops out like an eyeball…people tend to suck out the juice which is wonderful, and spit out the seed… we’re working on it…”
My own taste buds popped at a grape varietal described by Dr. Cain as “the wild strawberry grape.” Derived from wild grape species native to the United States, this grape – my personal favorite -- had the flavor of an “uva di fragole,” a grape with the taste of the wild strawberries of Italy. Pure indulgence. Not yet public...definitely amazing and possible addictive.
“What we would like to see is that consumers have a choice,” my host said, handing me bags of grapes to continue my own private tasting. “Any breeding or test program takes years, from the initial concept, to the trial vineyards, to the tasting. If we don’t see fruit after the third year, it’s not going to happen. We keep roughly ½ of 1 % of our efforts just to get a possibility.”
I thought hard about just who would get the possibility of being lucky enough to share these luscious treats.
“When a wine is released,” Jack had told me previously, “its flavor profile will depend on vineyard practices combined with the skill of the winemaker. A table grape is just that… what you see on your table is what you get in flavor, texture and taste. We expect our grapes to deliver great grape expectations.”
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Jack Pandol is no stranger to the business of grape growing. Born and raised in Delano, CA., grandson of a Croatian immigrant, and son of a man whose name he holds, Jack carries memories of his late father, and his dad’s role as a visionary in the early days of global agriculture and the grape industry.
A graduate of the University of California, Davis, Jack worked in the Pandol family business until he accepted an appointment under former Governor Pete Wilson, as Undersecretary, California Environmental Protection Agency, serving three years, then returning to work in the family business before he set out on his own.
“When I left the EPA I wanted to run my own business,” Jack said. “I wanted to do something different, yet in an area I knew and understood.” Jack’s vision ultimately drove him to form a partnership with the Stoller Family, well-known in the wine industry as the owners of Sunridge Nurseries. Sunridge gained attention in the early 1980’s for being able to provide high-quality phylloxera-resistant rootstocks to wine grape vineyards when the disease nearly decimated the Napa and Sonoma wine industry.
Joining with the Stoller Family to establish International Fruit Genetics IFG), renowned geneticist David Cain, Ph.D. was brought on board to create a spectrum of world-class table grapes. The mission: to grow artisan grapes with a range of “over the top” flavor profiles never before available. IFG is NOT involved in genetic engineering, but rather traditional breeding techniques to extract unique flavors from cross-breeding intra grape species following the work of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), an Austrian monk considered the father of plant genetics.
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Five years ago, Jim Beagle, a U-C Davis graduate and Harvard MBA with family and roots in the Central Valley agricultural community, joined Jack as a partner in the Grapery. Jack would focused on the vineyards; Jim on marketing to connect with consumers, finance, and administration.
Like many artisan producers, Grapery faced a number of challenges: how to sell to customers that previously had not purchased unique grapes, how to get customers to accept a higher price for their grapes, and whether the wholesale distribution system was the right route toward moving the grapes to market.
Neil Paschall is a managing director of The McLean Group, Sacramento, and lead investment banker in the firm’s Food & AgriBusiness specialty practice. “It is often customary when artisan products enter the marketplace,” he said, “for producers to move away from wholesalers who buy on price, to Direct to Consumer (DTC) where price may play less of a role.
“Artisan products are going to be priced at a higher level, but there is a trickle down process at work,” Paschall continued. “The real benefit is down the road. As more of these artisanal products enter the market and become available to consumers, the system will shift and build-out, fostering the market away from the middleman, allowing greater options for consumers, and re-directing more revenue back to those who actually grow the food. The re-structuring of the supply chain may eliminate some, but ultimately there will be more benefits to consumers and producers alike.”
“There are many changes on the horizon regarding the regionalization of “food hubs,” added Kara Lang, Ph.D., and consulting scientist at The McLean Group. “The development of regional distribution hubs, including markets and other outreach venues, will allow consumers to have more variety, greater choice, and healthier food options. As the framework of supply chains shift, new ways of getting food to consumers and creating enhanced revenue streams for producers will follow. It’s a win/win for all.”
“What we learned,” Jim continued, “was that we had to market our own grapes to specific markets and build our base one customer at a time. We started by putting out ‘Taste Boxes’ in specific stores, offering samples of, for instance, a black grape like Sweet Surrender, or a red grape like Sweet Celebration. Customers would return and ask for the grape by name. Now we have a national and local core group of quality retailers and businesses that cater to chefs. Asia is also a great export market for us. Buyers tend to appreciate flavors. They buy as much on taste as their eyes. We keep listening to our customers and keep moving forward.”
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Wine grape trellis
Table grape trellis
The growth cycle of table grapes is similar to wine grapes – pruning, bud break, thinning, bloom, canopy management, harvest -- but within each cycle there are differences. To begin, the Grapery’s vineyards look different. The most commonly used wine grape trellis system trains the vines to grow upward; Grapery uses an overhead gable trellis system that forms a canopy over two rows of vines. This allows the foliage to be more exposed to the sun, with fruit hanging beneath. Protected from direct sun, the grapes receive filtered light and air movement, preventing disease and enhancing color and flavor.
Between bloom in May and harvest, which may occur as early as July, crews “hit the ground running” engaging in a variety of vineyard activities: managing overload of the vines through “tipping,” (balancing the crop load by partial thinning of heavy or tangled clusters by dropping fruit), “girdling” (removal of a small circle of bark around the trunk, improving berry set, size, color and ripeness), applying weekly compost fertilizers, and monitoring drip irrigation. Water management is critical.
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Finally, it’s harvest. With temperatures expected to rise into triple digits, we assemble at sunrise. The leafy canopies protecting the grapes look as if they lead down a path to the home of a comfortable Hobbit.
“We harvest by flavor, NOT by date to meet a delivery deadline,” Jack re-affirms. “When you wait for ripeness, there is always risk regarding delivery. The smaller retailers are nimble enough to move quickly to get the best product. Different varietals ripen at different speeds; clusters within the same varietal may ripen together or not. This means that the crew will often return to the vineyards for several passes over the course of the harvest season. We build in this process because ripeness means flavor and that is what we are selling.”
This is truly a ‘hand crafted’ harvest. Consumers expect grapes on the bunch, yet in the natural process, as grape berries mature, they often loosen, or “shatter,” and fall off. This means cutting with care. There is a delicate balance between harvesting at the peak of maturity and the possibility of grapes going “over the hill.”
“I want to see refractometers in the hands of my crew chiefs,” Jack continued. “not in their pockets, not on the seats of their cars. Most of our workers can look at a cluster and tell immediately whether it is within the 20 plus brix (sugar) level for ripeness. That comes from experience, but it’s the responsibility of the crew chief to give the final okay on every grape that comes out of our vineyards before it is packaged and sent on. My signature and a personal e-mail are on every package we send out.”
Within short order, every worker is playing a part in a well-orchestrated and perfectly choreographed dance of the vineyard, working in unity to bring the Brand New Flavors of a centuries old fruit to markets around the world. As the day unfolds, the tempo of moving the grapes from the vine to warehouse and markets pick up. Every worker plays a role in the well-orchestrated and perfected choreographed dance of the vineyard.
“The customer often doesn’t know the source of the product,” concluded Jack. “It is important with a branded grape that no matter the source, the same amazing eating quality is maintained. Our model is the Pink Lady and what that varietal did for the apple industry. We want our table grapes to offer the consumer new and different choices, just like artisan fruit did for the apple industry.”
Sunrise has turned into sun-up. There’s magic in the vineyards, spelling a new era moving the arrival of artisan table grapes from these vineyards closer to our own tables.