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Peel Me Some Good News

IN SEASON

July 16, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

Grape growers all over the San Joaquin Valley are staring at the sky and shaking their fists.

That in itself is not unusual; grapes are tricky crops to raise, and any disturbance in the weather can wreak havoc. This year's twist is that the weather has been perfect. Too perfect.

"We have had absolutely nothing to put any stress on this crop," says Bruce Obbink, head of the California Table Grape Commission. "We've had 95-degree days to get the sugar up, 55-degree nights to get the color up, no burn, no rain, no nothing. We have not lost any of this crop to the elements, and that is highly unusual."

That doesn't sound like bad news and, for those of us who aren't grape growers, it's not.

The problem with having no problems is that this year's grape harvest is huge, one of the biggest. At this early point in the season, California has shipped almost 40% more grapes than at the same time last year.

But when crops are large, prices are small. Wholesale prices today are as much as 10% lower than they were at this time in 1995, the biggest harvest on record.

"It's a supply and demand situation," Obbink says. "For consumers, this is a real opportunity to get reasonably priced fruit."

How to get the best fruit? It turns out it's not easy. Although table grapes can develop sugar levels as high as 20% if they're allowed to hang on the vine long enough, typically they're picked at the legal minimum, about 16%.

Unfortunately, when the most popular grape variety--Thompson Seedless--is harvested later, it begins to develop "shatter." That's how industry describes when you pick up a bunch of grapes and half of them fall off. Supermarkets, understandably, hate that (it is also the reason you now see so many grapes sold already bagged rather than loose).

Besides the "shatter" factor, another way to tell really sweet grapes is to look for a golden cast to the skin. That's a degradation of the chlorophyll in the skin, says Doug Adams, an associate professor of viticulture at UC Davis, which happens as sugar content builds.

Once you've got your grapes home, keep them as cold as possible. Grape producers usually keep them as close to 32 degrees as possible (because of their sugar level, they won't freeze until they're much colder). Adams also recommends storing them in a place that is as humid as possible to keep the skins and stems from drying out.

*

Among this week's best buys: strawberries from Northern California, all kinds of melons, mangoes, peaches, plums and nectarines, as well as the usual mid-summer vegetables--tomatoes, squash, lettuces, corn and cucumbers.

Carolyn Olney of Southland Farmers Market Assn. reports that John and Deb Hurley are selling delicious tiny champagne grapes they grow near Dinuba. The Hurleys work the Calabasas market on Saturday and the Beverly Hills market on Sunday.

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