Anything is possible in today’s food universe, and it’s left up to consumers to decide if the innovators have gone too far.
David Cain is a fruit geneticist, a former researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who now breeds experimental fruit for profit. His latest invention is the Cotton Candy grape, which supposedly delivers a flavor similar to a carnival cone of spun sugar.
Don’t get hung up thinking about GMO engineering. Cain is actually practicing cross-breeding techniques that have been around for centuries, and some of what he does verges on old-fashioned. To produce the Cotton Candy grape, pollen from the male plant was brushed onto the female—an agricultural version of in-vitro fertilization. He freely admits that his company, International Fruit Genetics, is simply following market trends.
“We’re competing against candy bars and cookies,” Cain says, and the competition is fierce. There’s no denying that the sweet tooth of modern man is obscuring most other available flavors. And while the Clementine and the Honeycrisp apple were novel in their day, the problem with sweetness is that people become habituated to it, and they end up wanting more and more.
The really scary thing about the Cotton Candy grape, of course, is the inevitability that someone will make wine from it. Think White Zinfandel is sweet? These grapes are tailor-made for a public that wants wine to taste like soda pop. If you think the idea is far-fetched, remember that even some industry insiders doubted that White Zinfandel would catch on when it made its debut 35 years ago.
For the moment, we appear to be safe: Estimates of the introductory price of Cotton Candy grapes range as high as $6 per pound. If they catch on, more and more people will cultivate them, and the price will drop. When that happens, Sutter Home will be in trouble.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to amazon.com