Usually we see bags of grapes at the store and we’re like, “aw cute, but I’ll take the wine part instead,” because grapes are just little punching bags of sugar and you might as well be eating circus peanuts. They’re good for cheese plates though, so we’ll give them that.
Then Witch Finger grapes came along. Long, thin grapes that taste like grapes but look like bent pinky fingers in the most creepy yet delightful way. They’re in season in the tiny window of mid-July until early August, stalk them in specialty stores—I found them at Eli’s Market on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where producer manager Sal Schillizzi told me customers ask about the grapes weeks before they’ve arrived. Of course they do! It’s the Upper East Side.
Oh! And then there’s Cotton Candy grapes. Little hot air balloons that taste like CANDY. So much sugar. So much happiness. In season the first week of August until mid-to-late September. Sal told me that “Cotton Candy sell out like crazy” at Eli’s Market.
Cotton Candy grapes are back! Stop in samples Friday from 4-7 & Saturday 10-2. pic.twitter.com/RYleCZMCJ8
— Hy-Vee (@HyVee) August 27, 2016
But before you get all “What chemicals?! GMOs bad!” on me, please know that the way these trendy hipster grapes are made is the old-fashioned way: cross-pollination. Years of careful breeding by Dr. David Cain, a man who has spent his life traveling the globe, making new grapes. Let him live! There’s nothing sinister about it.
I talked to Jim Beagle, the CEO and co-owner of the Grapery, which is the only farm that grows these in the U.S. right now. In fact, Witch Finger grapes have been rebranded, now they’re “Tear Drop” grapes, because “we started to get more and more subtle complaints about it.” These grapes have only existed since 2013, when they were named “chili pepper grapes” because of their shapes, but then “kids wouldn’t touch them.” According to Beagle, half of their test group was “so grossed out by the word ‘fingers’ in their food that they refused to even sample the grapes.”
Fine, so they’re Tear Drops now. “It seems to work,” concluded Beagle, “I don’t know why. I’m just a farmer.”
Beagle told me that the reason Tear Drops taste sweeter and grapier than the usual grocery store options is that “Farmers get relentless pressure from grocery stores, or whoever we’re selling to, to have grapes with a long shelf life. So they harvest them prematurely. And they don’t taste good.”
Instead, Tear Drops are harvested when they’re ripe, so they taste like they’re supposed to. Beagle added: “On average they’re 50% more ripe than the average grape at the grocery store.” These Grapery folks are true rebels. But that means you’ll only see them for a brief passing grape-scented moment every summer, and stores only get a certain allotted amount of cases.
If you’re wondering what’s next in great grape innovations, here’s the scoop. Beagle told me that while Cotton Candy grapes are the most popular, “We have things we’re testing that are coming out this year and next year, that when people taste them side-by-side with Cotton Candy, some of these things are far more popular.”
So look out for Moon Drops—you heard that correctly—and Gum Drops. “They’re sweeter,” he said, “People came up with names like gummy bears, gummilicious, gumdrops. And that’s kind of what it tastes like, a grape gummy candy.”
If your next thought is…when are these Limited Edition Beanie Baby grapes going to be made into wine? Don’t count on it.
They made some Cotton Candy wine, said Beagle, and “the wine is terrible. It’s so bad. It tastes nothing like Cotton Candy. It’s flat, flabby, no acidity structure to give you balanced mouthfeel. It tastes like the flabbiest Chardonnay you’ve ever had. And it smells like stale donuts.”
This concludes today’s Studies in Grapes. Tune in next week for “Banana Laffy Taffy: Crime or Punishment?”