Changing Tastes on the Farm
Trendspotting from the Central Valley
In the monochrome fields of middle California, Dave Loquaci’s muscat grapes are a curiosity. Ever since he planted them three years ago, his neighbors have taken to clucking. You ought to see this vineyard, they say. No expense spared, perfect in every way, and doomed to bite the dust. Just like his pomegranates.
A fourth-generation grower, Loquaci is sitting wearily in his office on the north side of the San Joaquin River in Madera County. It’s 101 in the shade, and he’s about to check on the muscats coming into their second fruit. The story behind the muscat grape, its rise and fall and rise again, is the story of California farming, he says. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
The vineyard, with its fine sandy loam and good groundwater, is a five-minute drive away. Short and squat, Loquaci is 65 years old and dressed in clothes that drape him. “I was a little plumper a while back,” he says. He can’t explain how, but his voice is pure Brooklyn. With his receding hair slicked back, he looks a bit like Joe Pesci. He recoils. “I was thinking you might say Pacino.”
Along one country road and another, not a single farm appears as it did a decade ago, much less the way it looked when he was a kid. “In the ’60s, all around Madera proper was cotton and alfalfa and grain,” he says. “This was all Thompson seedless grapes not even eight or nine years ago. Now look at it. All these nuts here. All these nuts there.”
The fields of the Central Valley, if you know how to read them, tell you in a glance what the United States and the world are eating and drinking. Consumers change their tastes, and growers jump to change their crops. It’s reflex, Loquaci says. How else to explain farmers of stone fruit, dating back to their grandfathers, becoming growers of almonds and pistachios? “It’s driven by demand and supply,” he says.
Italian on his dad’s side, Armenian on his mom’s, Loquaci says he’s had to learn not to be so headstrong. The most successful grower is a soothsayer. He must see the turn not only before the herd of his fellow growers but before grocery shoppers realize their tastes are about to change. He must time the several-year delay between planting the next hot crop and getting it to market just right. If he guesses too late and finds himself on the wrong side of fickle, which happens more than anyone here cares to admit, the consequences can be brutal. Which is how Loquaci, the great-grandson of America’s melon king, has become a grower of raisins, almonds, French plums, and wine grapes.
He pulls his new white Explorer into the vineyard and hops out. When he leveled this entire 200 acres three years ago and planted Muscat of Alexandria, some of his neighbors wondered what had gotten into him. A market for muscat? They recalled the 300 acres of pomegranates he had planted in 2007, only to yank out half as the hype for Pom juice came and went.
Loquaci knew he was reaching back to the Old World. The downy white shoots and conical clusters of the muscat, a native of North Africa, had spread from the port of Alexandria to the edges of the Mediterranean during the Roman Empire. Table grape, raisin, dessert wine, brandy — it had served kings well. It arrived in California in the days of the Gold Rush, smuggled in by the French colony of growers in Santa Clara.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Basque and Italian immigrants used to eat it as a table grape, finding delight in the little crunch of seed at the back end of its sweetness. Winos loved its florid musk, too. Sun-Maid plucked out its seed and covered its wrinkles in chocolate. But by the 1970s, tastes had changed, and farmers had a hard time selling a ton for $30. Growers couldn’t bulldoze their vines fast enough, stacking their twisted trunks into giant piles that burned across the land.
Then five years ago, industrial outfits like Barefoot Wine and Sutter Home started pushing muscat as the new white zinfandel: wine for people who don’t think of themselves as wine drinkers. Around the same time, moscato — Italian for muscat — started showing up in hip hop lyrics. Between 2010 and 2011, sales shot up 70 percent. It didn’t take long before Gallo and other vintners were making their way to Madera County, offering $600 a ton to plant muscat grapes. “What do I care what people drink?” Loquaci asks. “Sweet. Dry. I don’t give a damn. As long as they’re drinking, I’ll provide the juice.”
He takes a step on the vineyard berm, and the loam envelops his shoes. The muscats, row after row, staked high, tied tight, and trellised for machine pick, are clean and loaded with fruit. He pops a berry, amber where the sun hits it, into his mouth and waits for his tongue to tell him the sugar. “I’d say we’re three or four weeks away from harvest.”
Driving back to his office, he assures me this is a place without sentimentality. Who but an ancient fool would use good soil and precious water to grow a honeydew or Persian today? You might think it’s hard for a farmer to turn his fields into a suburban tract, he says, but it’s a lot easier when he’s spent 40 years pulling out one crop and replacing it with another. Easier still when his only child, a daughter, wants no part of it.
Back at his desk, the labor contractor is calling to ask about the pick, and his secretary waves a fistful of bills in his face. His father, Robert, 91 years old, wearing a San Francisco Giants hat and suspenders, walks in on a cane.
“You got a valve that’s leaking water on the plums. It’s a mess. Better get someone to shut it off.”
“Looks like a good crop,” the old man softens.
“Yeah, I think we’re going to be all right. Hey, Dad, I’ve got a question. Do you ever miss the Thompsons?”
His father ponders but not for long. No grape worked harder. You could eat it as a berry, pummel it into wine, or lay it out in the sun to make raisins. “Thompsons?” he says. “You gotta prune ’em. You gotta tie ’em. You gotta pick ’em by hand. For $200 a ton maybe? Nah. Good riddance.”
Father and son are already discussing what they’re going to do after the harvest. That 40 acres of muscats out front, the ones his grandfather planted in the 1950s, built so low to the ground that they have to be hand-picked — they’re coming out. The muscat wine craze — sales are still climbing but not as fast as they were three years ago — could fizzle out at any moment. They’ll be planting Selma Petes, a new kind of raisin.