Tasting fruit is easy ... if you're at an event such as Harvest Day at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center or an informal tasting at a weekend gathering at a nursery. Stand in line, munch a bit on the fruits of your choosing, then move on down the line to the next attractive morsel. You might nod your approval or smile upon biting into a tasty peach, nectarine, pluot, plum, cherry or apple. Perhaps even jot down a checkmark next to your favorite fruit on a sheet at the end of the row. But let's face it: the goal isn't so much to judge your reaction to the fruit as it is to sell you on the idea of buying and planting that delectable fruit tree next winter in your own backyard.
It's not easy tasting fruit in a more clinical setting. OK, a fruit packing shed can't really be called a "clinic", but when Dave Wilson Nursery holds one of their annual invitation-only fruit tastings at their growing grounds in Hickman (outside Modesto), your senses go into overdrive.
And the stakes are higher. Buying, and growing, decisions on the wholesale level ride on the reviews the new fruits get at these formal tastings. Mainly, however, the objective of these well-organized Dave Wilson Nursery fruit tastings is to educate retail nursery personnel with more fruit knowledge as well as sharpen their experiences with tree-ripened fruit. Especially, these tastings gently prod nurseries to encourage the sale and planting of the consistently best tasting varieties. Besides new introductions, many fruits that are already in the Dave Wilson Nursery catalog are included in these taste tests, to see if they are worth keeping in commerce.
For nearly 20 years, Dave Wilson Nursery has conducted 52 formal fruit tastings, featuring over 1,700 varieties, each variety sampled and evaluated by an average of 30 tasters. There were close to 50 taste testers at their latest fruit evaluation in mid-August.
This is no leisurely munching, either. There isn't much time to ponder the subtleties of each morsel. Consider that by the the time the event begins, the tasters will have about two and a half hours to savor 33 pieces of fruit, less than five minutes per sample to judge the fruit on eight different sets of criteria:
• How attractive is the fruit, including the shape, skin and flesh? (1 to 5, from ugly to extraordinarily attractive).
• What is the physical maturity of the fruit? (very soft to very hard).
• How ripe is it, according to the taste? (not ripe to past its peak).
• How appealing is the texture, the mouth-feel? (from very disagreeable to especially appealing).
• Acidity (not tart, bland to too tart, sour)
• Sugar (lacks sweetness to too sweet)
• Flavor (absent or disagreeable to rich, intense, superior)
• And, an overall score (from 1 to 9, atrocious to best ever).
This is quite different from professional farm tours of test orchards, where buyers from around the world are more concerned with the way the fruit looks, the ripening season (early varieties are very popular, as are varieties that can help fill the gaps during fresh fruit season), its firmness (for shipping) and the brix level (measurement of sugar).
At the Dave Wilson fruit tastings, each participant is supplied with the basics: pencil, forms, paper towels, water (to cleanse the palate), plain crackers (to neutralize the fruit sensations left on the tongue), a knife, and fruit. Lots and lots of fruit. The Dave Wilson crew works quickly, picking up each plate after the allotted time, and immediately setting down the next fruit plate to sample.
Generally, the participants work in groups of four, where one person does the slicing and everyone in the group offers opinions of the fruits.
When the fruits arrive, there are usually three or four of each sample on the plate. And there can be an amazing amount of variability among the three or four fruits: one might be more ripe, one might be notoriously underripe, one may have an internal defect, such as pit burn (but that's rare). Usually, the samples are fairly close in maturity and size.
Although each group tends to make their own rules on the fly, everyone tends to settle on the best tasting fruit on the plate as the one to pass judgement upon. And no one knows what they are tasting, until the scores have been recorded for each plate of fruit. That limits the amount of bias beforehand (as in, "ewwww, I don't want to taste a commercial variety!"). Yes, they throw in a few ringers, such as samples of fruit that you might find in a supermarket. This helps everyone realize that varieties intended for the home market - both hybrids and heirlooms - do taste better!
Here are many of the fruits that we tasted, along with my thoughts. Remember, with so many tasters in the room, the same piece of fruit will score high and low, depending on the taste buds of the individual. For example, the Texas Blue Giant fig did nothing for me. Of the three pieces available, they were either sour or bland. I gave it an overall score of 2.5 (poor to mediocre). The taster sitting next to me, however, scored it much higher, a 7 (very good).
The numbered varieties listed here have yet to arrive in commerce, when they will have more descriptive names, of course. Naturally, those were some of my favorites!
|29MN280 interspecific plum "Sweet, Excellent!"|
|32MF337 Cherry Plum "Heart Shape comes to a tasty point"|
|39ZD1053 Interspecific Plum "Nice balance"|
|39ZD1053 Interspecific Plum in its entirety|
|49MA568 Pubescent Plum "Juicy, but too tart"|
|66ZN93 Cherry Plum "Unique flavor"|
|378LV332 White Nectarine "Crunchy, above average, but no "wow"|
|Arctic Pride commercial white nectarine "crunchy but bland"|
|BlackJack Fig "Nice crunch"|
|Champagne Peach "Very bland. A waste of 'pretty'. "|
|Dapple Dandy Pluot "pleasing taste, nice red flesh"|
|Excel Fig "mushy"|
|Fay Elberta Peach "Bland, watery, smoky flavor"|
|Flame Kissed Nectarine "Not ripe. Repulsive birdfood."|
|Flavor Grenade Pluot "not fully ripe"|
|Flavor Queen commercial pluot "Picked too soon"|
|Fortune Plum "Big, with above average flavor"|
|Friar Plum "Disappointingly mild"|
|Honey Diva commercial nectarine "Crunchy, but bland"|
|Hosui Asian Pear "Nice balance of sweet and tart"|
|JH Hale Peach "Ugly pit area, bland"|
|Royal Giant Nectarine "Mediocre"|
|SauZee Lady Flat Peach "mediocre but sweet"|
|Snow King Peach "bland"|
|Superior Plum "nice orange flesh, but sour taste"|
|Texas Blue Giant Fig "sour to bland"|
|Tra-Zee Yellow Peach "Tasty, not syrupy"|
|Yakumo Asian Pear "watery, bland"|
|Yukon King subacid commercial peach "Watery, too mild"|
|ZeeGlow Nectarine "Disappointing"|
|Zephyr Nectarine "Supermarket quality"|
|ZIM600 interspecific plum/peach "Very pleasing balance"|
|ZIM600 interspecific plum/peach "Very pleasing balance" |
And if you attend three or more of Dave Wilson Nursery's official taste testings, you get one of these! (which can lead to some interesting conversations with strangers if worn in public)