Confectionery and soda manufacturers have long used fruit flavors and images to promote their sugar-laden products, but now a California-based table grape grower is doing just the opposite – promoting natural fruit with candy-like names. Harnessing cultivars bred by International Fruit Genetics, Grapery has started capturing a niche market for very different breeds of table grape.
Cotton Candy, Moon Drops and Gum Drops are not names you’d expect to find in the produce aisle, but that’s exactly where Grapery is taking them for a short season at premium prices.
And it isn’t just wishful thinking for this association with sweetness. According to co-owner Jim Beagle the Gum Drops were described in consumer testing as “like gummy bears”, and that was before they had a name.
“To be perfectly clear, Gum Drops is really intended to encompass a range of flavors that are coming out of the breeding program,” Beagle says.
“What we’re growing now for the first year falls into that, but we really view that as a flavor class that multiple varieties will fall into in the future,” he says, clarifying the first Gum Drops harvest will be in very small volumes.
“Some of the early indications are it’ll be at least as popular as Cotton Candy [grapes] or even more so, as long as it has enough of a presence for people to recognize it.”
He says this follows the first commercial harvest of Moon Drops last year, which are going to have a “major commercial presence” this year for the first time.
“We’re just beginning our fourth commercial harvest of Cotton Candy, which isn’t that many,” he adds.
“Everybody’s got different preferences for sweeter or sour or all kinds of different flavors, so it’s almost like we have enough different flavors to offer everybody something they like. For people who like cotton candy, they usually like the cotton candy grapes.”
Understanding the difference requires at least a simple explanation of table grape genetics. Beagle emphasizes the vast majority of table grapes grown commercially worldwide fit into the class of “Mediterranean” varieties, known scientifically as Vitis Vinifera.
But outside that class there are innumerable grape species, grown in places like the eastern United States and the Middle East, that are still of the genus ‘Vitis’ but accompanied by something else.
One of the more commonly known examples is the Concord grape, which is native to the northeastern United States and fits under the Vitis Labrusca species.
“Here in the U.S. we have what I’d commonly refer to as the flavor of Welch’s grape juice – that flavor is a very distinct grapey flavor that’s often mimicked in candy, soda, that sort of thing, and Concord grapes are a source of that flavoring,” Beagle says.
“So it’s got a very candy-like flavor – the breeding program has cross-bred some of the species that Concord are derived from with the Mediterranean grape species that are typically grown commercially around the world for table grapes, and that’s how we have a table grape with a really unique flavor profile,” he says.
“There are just some grapes that are native to the eastern U.S. and the Middle Eastern region of the world that have some of those shapes, that typically have had either terrible shelf life or big seeds and our breeder was successfully minimize those characteristics in order to have something that’s somewhat viable commercially.”
He describes the cross-breeding as “pretty tough” but not all of Grapery’s fruit was developed this way. The company’s most established brand ‘Flavor Promise’ actually covers traditional varieties of all kinds but under one label with high standards for flavor and consistency.
Also, one of the company’s most eye-catching varieties was not cross-bred, even though it looks slightly strange. Known as Tear Drops, the fruit has a “traditional table grape taste” but is difficult to grow.
“Tear Drops are pretty tough in the field so they’re never going to be a huge thing commercially,” Beagle says.
“Tear Drops are only a three or four week season – we’re into the second week and there’s only a couple of them left. It’s our shortest one – Cotton Candy is about six weeks, and Moon Drops go for about 10 weeks.
Including grapes grown for the Flavor Promise brand, Beagle expects to have fresh grapes in the market until early or mid-November.
“This is a niche that we have and a place where we fit into the industry which we think adds excitement to the category and offers enough of a range to consumers to be able to try a few different things.
“And we think it really complements the traditional red, green and black grape offerings which are much more consistently available, at a better value throughout the year.”