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IN SEASON

The Belated Grape

September 02, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

It's been a rotten summer so far, but California's grape growers aren't ready to give up.

With a harvest running fully three weeks behind normal, serious picking in the central San Joaquin Valley is only now getting underway.

Because California's grape harvest is almost 40% behind the same date last year, prices have averaged 20% more at wholesale than in a normal year.

The bad days are coming to an end, though. Expect to see a lot of grapes during the next couple of months and expect to see them cheap.

"We're going to be very busy," says Kathleen Nave, executive vice president of the California Table Grape Commission, a growers group. "We are going to have a lot of grapes to sell in September and October. Lots and lots of grapes."

Despite the slow start, predictions for this year's total harvest are only about 10% below last year's record. That means there's a lot of catching up to be done during the next six weeks. That means prices are aimed to encourage sales.

Shoppers who want the sweetest grapes--at least among the green-skinned varieties--should look closely at their color. When it takes on a golden aspect, that is a sign of high sugar (technically, it means the sugars are degrading the chlorophyll in the grape).

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find grapes with such high sugar levels in supermarkets. With a sugar content that high, grape bunches develop "shatter"--meaning the individual grapes fall free from the clusters easily. Produce managers don't like that.

When you get your grapes home, refrigerate them in a tightly sealed plastic bag. Grapes like cold and they like humidity. Do not wash them until you're ready to eat them, though. The excess moisture from washing will encourage them to spoil more quickly.

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Farmers' Market Report

It takes a little something extra to get noticed at the crowded Sunday morning Hollywood Growers' Market. At Roger and Sandy Sanders' stand, they'll pick your melons for you. "You want one for today and one for Wednesday?" you're asked as one of the workers paws through the fruit, patting with the flat of her hand. Having someone pick perfect moment of ripeness is the icing on the cake when it comes to melons this good. Try their Galia, a powerfully sweet green-fleshed melon with a scent of flowers and musk. The secret to picking a good melon? The Sanders say hard-shelled melons like watermelon should have a hollow sound with thumped (flat of the hand, not a fist, please). Pick soft-shelled melons like cantaloupe by examining the stem end, it should be smooth and a little soft.

At other stands, Jess Swope from Selma has tiny sweet muscatel grapes that have the floral quality of muscat but without troublesome seeds. Ha's Apple Ranch from Tehachapi has dried apple slices in addition to Hosui Asian pears and mountain-grown Fuji apples. Yasutomi farm near Pico Rivera has a great selection of greens, including green leaf and Boston lettuces, arugula, komatsuna, garlic chives and okra leaf. Sherrill's Orchard from near Arvin has an assortment of vinegars and ciders in addition to Gala, Golden Supreme, Honey Gold and Crispin apples. Next door, the Pomegranate Connection from Maricopa has juices, vinegars and jellies as well as fresh and dried fruit. Underwood Ranch from Moorpark has a few good peppers: red cherry, jalapeno and long green as well as regular old bells in white, orange, purple, red, green and chocolate.

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