California grape farmers have been tapping their toes and eying the calendar. It seems the entire agricultural season got knocked back a couple of weeks thanks to the persistent cold weather that wouldn't let go at the end of spring. Early grape varieties just started showing up last month, and we're now starting to see that the grape season was worth the wait.
The season is starting with small mountains of Red Flames, blushed with sunset colors and in heavy bunches on thick, green stems made strong by plentiful rains. The large, inky marbles of the delicate Kyoho are beginning to show up, too. And these are just two of the many table grape varieties we'll see. Some favorites include Autumn Royal, Niabell, Concord, Champagne, and good old Thompson.
Calling them "table grapes" is an unimaginative categorization that implies that they only have one really good purpose. Granted, fresh out of hand, a fresh picked grape from a local farm is a flavorful wonder, ranging from syrupy sweet (Red Flames) to deep and musky (Kyohos) to almost caramel-like (late season Thompsons). Baked into a rustic tart, roasted with a slim coating of brandy, churned into a rich sorbet, or even lightly pickled, this season's grapes are highly adaptable. You'll just need a playful imagination and proper picking know-how.
Good grapes start at the stem. Look for sturdy, thick green branches that a firmly attached to their fruit. Some varieties have light spotting or streaks of colors along the stems: this is fine. What you want to avoid are dried-out and brittle sticks with fruit that is barely hanging on the stem. High sugar varieties like the Kyoho and Concord should be used quickly or refrigerated as they have a penchant for fermenting. You can store them in the fridge for up to a week, but like most things cold-stored, they tend to lose their fresh-picked taste within a few days.