Green, red, or bluish black; firm and crisp or soft and sensuous; seeded or seedless ― there's a grape to suit every taste. And Western vines are swinging into full production right now.
California supplies 97 percent of the nation's commercially grown table grapes. In 1839 at a pueblo now known as Los Angeles, a trapper from Kentucky, William Wolfskill, planted the first vineyard of grapes designated for eating, not winemaking. Today the state produces as many as 18 major table grape varieties (the photo above shows just a few), each distinctive and interesting. Starting in late spring, early varieties begin to ripen in the Coachella Valley; then the harvest slowly moves north, ending in the San Joaquin Valley in late fall. High-tech storage keeps some fresh California grapes in the market until February. (Fruit from Chile overlaps in winter and fills in the gaps to make grapes a year-round presence.)
For sweetest flavor, grapes should be picked fully ripe. Their color is a good indication of whether they have been or not. Red grapes should be ― well, predominantly red. Blue-black fruit should have a very deep color. Green varieties should be tinged with yellow. Store them unwashed in the refrigerator for several days; rinse shortly before serving.
The diversity that makes grapes perennially interesting to eat plain also makes them widely versatile for cooking. Our recipes show off individual characteristics in unexpected ways, but feel free to substitute similar varieties.