Three men heavily influenced the history of grapes in America: William Wolfskill, Agoston Haraszthy, and
William Thompson. In 1839, William Wolfskill, a former trapper from Kentucky, planted the first vineyard
of table grapes in California, near what today is Los Angeles. He was the first person to ship grapes to
Northern California gold miners.
Agoston Haraszthy was an immigrant from Hungary who is often referred to as the father of California
viticulture. In the mid1800's, Haraszthy brought one hundred thousand vine cuttings from Europe to
California. Unlike Wolfskill, his interest was in wine, so these vine cuttings were for three hundred
varieties of wine grapes. In addition to planting them at his own winery, Buena Vista, he sold his
imported vine cuttings to growers around the state.
William Thompson was born in England in 1839 and immigrated to the United States in 1863. He grafted
three vine cuttings of a grape variety called Lady de Coverly to California grapevines. Over a four-year
period and some additional graftings, the grapes he produced were named Thompson seedless. Today the
Thompson seedless grape is the most popular table grape as well as one of the most versatile. It is also
used for juice and wine and accounts for 95 percent of the raisins produced in California.
Essentially a plant of temperate zones, the grape grows particularly well in regions where the climate
is like that of the Mediterranean. California produces 97 percent of all the European varieties grown
commercially in the United States; Arizona produces the remainder. California is third in the world in
table grape production, behind Italy and Chile. The vast majority of the grapes imported into the United
States come from Chile, with Mexico a distant second.
The two types of grape species grown in the United States are the Native American, and the European.
Even though early Americans grafted European varieties to the hardier Native American rootstocks, the
table grapes we see today are direct descendants of European varieties. There are an estimated ten
thousand varieties of the European species, but only a dozen or so are imported as table grapes.
Selection and Storage
Grapes are harvested only when fully ripe, so they should always be ready to eat when you buy them. Use color as a guide to the sweetness of the fruit. Green grapes should have a yellow cast or straw color with a touch of amber when fully ripe, not an opaque grassy green color. Red grapes should be a deep crimson, not a milky or pale red. Blue grapes should be darkly hued, almost black, not pale or tinged with green.
Grapes should be plump, so avoid any that have lots of underdeveloped, very green fruit. You can always judge the freshness of grapes by the stem. The greener the stem, the fresher the grapes. Grapes should always be firmly attached to their stems. Before storing, remove any spoiled grapes with broken skins or browning from the bunch and keep refrigerated; they should keep for a week to ten days. During storage, continue to remove any and all spoiled fruit. Grapes can also be frozen, extending their storage life for up to three months (see Tony's Tip).
Washing and removing grapes from their stems is about all that is needed to prepare grapes to be used in a particular dish. If grapes are left in bunches for fruit and cheese platters, rinse bunches briefly under cool water and drain to refresh them about 30 minutes before serving.
Grapes are excellent in cold salads, especially chicken, turkey, or tuna salads. Cinnamon is probably the most accommodating spice to use with grapes, or try them with curry and nuts, especially walnuts and almonds.
Frozen grapes are a great, nutritious snack for kids. Remove the stems, and put Red Flame or other seedless grapes on a tray in the freezer. When frozen, put them in a resealable plastic bag and return them to the freezer. Then kids can have sweet, frozen snacks anytime.
Tony's Favorite Recipe
Grape and Bulgar Stuffing
Thompson seedless grapes represent more than a third of the table grapes now grown in California. Light green and oval in appearance, it is juicy,crisp, and sweet.
Black Beauty, often called the Beauty, is the
only seedless black variety. Its flavor resembles that of Concord grapes, spicy and sweet.
Flame seedless grapes are a blend between the
Thompson, Cardinal, and a few other varieties. They have grown rapidly in popularity to become the
second most popular table grape after the Thompson seedless. It is round and deep red, with a sweet-tart
flavor and a pleasant crunch.
Tokay (Flame Tokay) is a sweeter version of
the Flame seedless grape. Its fruit is large and elongated with orange-red color and crisp texture.
Perlette is a round crisp green grape with a
frosty white "bloom" on its surface. It is the first grape if the California season and one of the
Ruby seedless are deep red, oval grapes with a
sweet flavor and juicy flesh.
Black Corinth, often marketed as the Champagne
grape, is a small, purple grape with a delicious winelike sweetness and crunchy texture. It is usually
available at gourmet markets when fresh, but is more common in dried form as the Zante currant.
Superior is a fairly recent variety but has
become popular for its sweet flavor and distinctive crunch. This grape is bright green in color and
elongated in shape.
Emperor grapes were once a major variety,
representing a quarter of California's table production, but now it is less than 5 percent. Bunched
in reddish to purplish clusters, Emperor grapes have a mild somewhat cherry-like flavor, and a lower
sugar content than many others. Their thick skins make them a durable grape for shipping and consumer
handling. Its large size and full, round shape make the Emperor a popular variety for holiday tables.
Red Globe variety is a very large grape, with
crisp texture, large seeds, and good flavor. It's becoming increasingly important for export, pushing
out the Emperor.
Calmeria grapes are pale green in color and
oval in shape. They provide a mildly sweet flavor containing a few small seeds. An elongated shape is
the reason for its nickname, the "Lady Finger" grape.
Exotic, is a blue-black grape with firm flesh
and a close resemblance to the Ribier.
Ribier is a large, blue-black grape that grows
in generous bunches. It has tender, slightly bitter skins and a sweeter flavor than the Exotic.
Italia or Italia Muscat grapes are primarily
used for winemaking. The Italia's flavor is milder than the original Muscat but the wine-like sweetness
still exists and so does the wonderful fruit fragrance.
Christmas Rose is a newer variety, a cross of
four older varieties. It has large, bright red berries and tart-sweet flavor.
Native American Varieties
Native American grapes are sometimes referred to as "slip skin grapes" because their skins
easily separate from the flesh. Another common characteristic of this group is that their seeds remain
tightly imbedded in the flesh.
Concord grapes are the most familiar Native
American variety. Commercial production is still concentrated in the East, with New York the major
grower. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arkansas, and Washington also produce Concord grapes. The Concord's
thick skin holds in a heady, sweet aroma and delicious, medium-sweet flavor. This variety originated
in the 1840s near Concord, Massachusetts, and is a large, round, blue-black grape. It is more commonly
used in making preserves and juices. In addition to the Concord, the varieties most often seen in the
market are Catawba, Delaware, Niagara, Steuben, and Scuppernong.