Will cotton candy-flavored grapes compete with classic varieties for a seat at the table?

David Karp

Table grapes are seedless and convenient, but they don't have a lot of flavor. Some producers are hoping to change that with Cotton Candy, the grape flavored like the carnival treat. Food writer and "fruit detective" David Karp, whose weekly column on produce appears in the Los Angeles Times, explains the surprising new variety.

Melissa Clark: Why would anyone want to build a better table grape? What's wrong with the grapes that we already have?

David Karp
David Karp

David Karp: There's a lot that's right with them: They're sweet, they're kid-friendly, they're convenient, they're seedless. Just pop them in your mouth while you're driving down the road.

But they don't have a lot of flavor. It's ironic because of all the agricultural products, wine is perhaps most highly reputed for being expensive and highly flavorful. Whereas table grapes are neutral. They're designed to appeal to the largest proportion of the public without offending anybody.

MC: They're basically sweet, but there's not a lot going on is what you're saying.

DK: There's not a lot of complexity. They're just sweet, neutral-flavored.

MC: Are there farmers who are working on creating a new breed of grape that combines both?

DK: There are. It started with a program at the University of Arkansas 40 or 50 years ago that was inherited by John Clark, a good friend of mine. John Clark started working with David Cain of a company that's now called International Fruit Genetics.

He has come up with amazing varieties that will just blow away people's conception of the potential for flavoring grapes. Some of these varieties taste like pineapple and strawberries.

There's one called Scraggly, because the bunches aren't very impressive. That's the one that people always ask for because it has a rich, complex flavor, almost like a fine wine and a table grape. It will blow you away.

MC: Are we going to be able to find those?

DK: Not quite yet. But there is one really good one that's approaching commercial production for the first time this year. One hundred acres of a grape called Cotton Candy, which really smells and tastes like cotton candy. It's interesting, it's thin-skinned, it's sweet, it's addictive.

Cotton Candy grapes
Cotton Candy and seedless red Muscat grapes (David Karp)

MC: Is it a purple grape, a green grape or a red grape?

DK: It's a green grape.

MC: A green grape that looks like a regular grape, has that wonderful texture and is easy to transport, but tastes like cotton candy. I think my kid will love that.

DK: Yes, definitely. These other grapes may be a couple years down the road. You can come up with something that looks good and tastes good, but if it doesn't have the combination of characteristics desired by commercial producers and retailers -- resistance to disease, productivity, easy to manage for a farmer, with appropriate post-harvest shelf life -- it's not going anywhere.

You can't reasonably expect somebody to plant something and then lose their shirt so that we can have delicious grapes. I used to think when I started out writing about fruit some 25 years ago that farmers should do that, but that's just totally unrealistic.

MC: Are people going to be able to buy the grape Cotton Candy all over the country or is it just a West coast thing?

DK: All over the country. It should be available this year from about Aug. 10 to Sept. 10 from 100 acres which are coming into commercial production for the first time this year. I begged Jim Beagle at the Grapery to tell me, "Which stores are they going to be available at?" He said, "You know what? If we mention one store, then the others are going to be breathing down our neck saying, 'Why didn't they mention us?'" They will be available, look for them at your stores -- I certainly will myself.

MC: One hundred acres doesn't sound like a lot though. Is that a lot?

DK: It's not a drop in the bucket. One hundred acres is getting there, and this is just the first step. I'm sure if it's successful, they'll be planting a lot more.

There will be other varieties too that are coming down the pipe. I just can't wait for the strawberry one or if they come up with something like Scraggly with that rich vinous flavor in a table grape.

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