Hey, sugar

Cherries have many faces

Nothing beats cherries on top.

Nothing beats cherries on top.

Responsible fruit growers seek shelf life, but passionate fruit growers seek sugar.

When it comes to cherries, growers use a refractometer to measure the sweetness of the fruit before deciding whether it’s ready. A refractometer is a small, hand-held device that sends a beam through a drop of juice, which determines, by degree of light refraction, the liquid’s sugar content. Peaches may hit 18 brix, and wine grapes soar to 25 brix or more. Supermarket cherries may measure 10 brix or less.

Fred Manas at Manas Ranch in Esparto waits to harvest his Lapin and Skeena cherries until they have hit at least 14 brix, or the ratio of parts sugar per every 100 parts aqueous solution. Supermarket cherries, Manas said, are picked earlier, when hard and watery.

“Mine have sugar in them,” he said matter-of-factly.

This year’s cool spring has delayed the ripening of cherries by about a week, say local farmers, who usually harvest the fruit between late May and mid-June.

Some cherries turn color earlier than others, though. At the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters, for example, a cherry tasting on May 15, featuring a dozen members of the California Rare Fruit Growers, featured 10 early-ripening varieties, including Coe, Merton Heart, Merton Premiere, Burbank and several more. Dozens of others in the orchard, operated by the USDA, were not yet ready to sample.

The West Coast cherry industry began around 1850, when one Henderson Lewelling, a nurseryman from Iowa, and his brother Seth settled in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and began breeding this littlest of stone fruits. One of their creations was particularly crisp and sweet. They named it after one of their friends in the trade, a Chinese assistant named Ah Bing.

Today, Bing is king, constituting some 95 percent of California’s 27,000 cherry acres, grown mostly in the Delta.

Bing cherries are monocropping in peak form, but not all farmers want more and more and more of the same. Growers like Don Fitzgerald in Knights Landing attended the May 15 government tasting seeking the unusual. He, like most attendees, favored the Mona, a bright, crisp, red cherry, but he took note of several others. Fitzgerald owns just a quarter-acre of land and is busy grafting rare varieties on a dozen cherry trees. In several years, he hopes to sell roadside the fruit he can’t preserve as jam.

Bing cherries grow less favorably farther south in the San Joaquin Valley. When tested in the region several decades ago, Bings experienced a heat-related condition called “cherry doubling,” caused by a split embryo.

Jim Doyle helped solve this matter. A famed fruit breeder who has helped develop many stone fruits and figs, Roseville resident Doyle assisted several partners in creating the Brooks cherry during the 1970s. Finally patented in 1989, Doyle says the Brooks not only resists doubling, but in the San Joaquin Valley it also ripens as early as April—a lucrative niche market challenged by no other cherry region.

At our local farmers’ markets and fruit stands, expect cherries in mid-June. But a cloud may be building over the state’s cherry groves. Scattered reports tell of a fearsome pest, the spotted winged drosophila, or cherry vinegar fly, devouring crops around the state. The infestations have been centered in the Bay Area, but last year the bug appeared in Davis.

“Before, we just had to worry about birds,” Fitzgerald observed. “Now we might have a bug that lays eggs in the fruit that become maggots. My trees are going to be wild unless this bug wipes me out.”

It’s not a crisis yet, but taste the cherries while you can.