I will bet that most of you do not know how to make raisins. Am I right? I know some city slickers that think the grapes are dried on the vine or worse yet, grow that way and unaware they start life as a grape! Most raisins are made from seedless grapes. On our farms, it was the Thompson seedless. The secret to making them is to pick the grapes when the sugar and water content is just right. We use a hydrometer for this purpose. A hydrometer measures the specific gravity of liquids. Specifically, a saccharometer measures the sugar content in a solution. I bet you thought farmers did not use much technology, right?
But first, the crops must be properly readied for several months. During the dormant season, we must prune the vines in a specific way. Generally, we leave 5 or 6 good canes, and 3 to 4 spurs (the length of 2 to 3 eyes) on each vine. Then during the spring, the leaves sprout uniformly, and the crop comes in correctly. Of course, the weather is the biggest variable, as extreme heat or cold anywhere along the way will reduce or ruin the crop. There is also the possibility of infestation. That is what I do not understand about so-called organic growers. I can easily see their entire crop ruined by fungus, leaf-rollers, or aphids. But what do I know?
Anyway, we irrigate through the spring and into summer. Around late August, we terrace the soil between the rows of vines. Many years, it is hard to find farm workers to pick the grapes. That is an issue for another or later discussion. The grapes are picked by cutting the stem at the top of the bunch, then placed or dropped into a large pan. When the pan is full, the grapes are dumped onto a specially treated paper tray. We use a wooden frame around the perimeter of the tray, both to hold the paper tray flat, and to keep the grapes on the tray. The paper tray is treated to prevent mold, and help resist moisture. Rain, of course, at this time of year is rare, but potentially devastating. It causes mold and rot on the grapes as they try to dry.
Assuming all goes well, the grapes take several weeks in the hot sun to dry to the proper level. The raisins cannot be too moist or too dry. The sugar and water content, back when we decided when to pick, is the key here. Too much water or sugar, and the raisins shrink to nothing. The tonnage will be a lot less, and we will not make as much money. Plus the raisins are not as plump and juicy as they should be.
We walk through the rows of vineyard, and roll the trays in a three fold roll, and place them in a row along one side of the row. Some stragglers are left to dry a little longer. If we make it to this point, we are generally safe from the weather. When we have completed this monumental task, we are ready to bring the raisins into the yard. We do this with a tractor and two vineyard wagons. The wagons are now holding large pallet boxes, much like you see on the big trucks on the freeway. We dump the bundles of raisins into the bins. At the end of the row, we pull out the tray paper, and burn it as soon as we drive down another row. When the bins are full, we head into the yard, where we will stack the bins with a forklift. Once this is done, we load the bins onto a truck, or hire a hauler to take it to our cooperative, the Sun Maid Raisin Cooperative, located right in our hometown.
As you can see, the process is about as natural as can be. No sugar is added to the grapes or raisins. No chemicals are added as a preservative. Once at the plant, they are stored until they begin their cleaning and stemming process. The raisins are washed by hot water, after being put through a stemming machine. After drying, they are boxed according to their use, or placed into bulk containers for other uses.
You may see traditional raisin boxes in the store as they have for decades. But raisins are also chocolate or yogurt coated, added to trail mix, or energy bars. They are sold to cereal companies for granola and raisin bran type products. They are sold to baking companies for pastries and cookies. They are sold in bulk overseas. One use you did not guess is this. Did you know what the primary ingredient of A1 Steak Sauce is? That’s right, raisins. Think about it next time you taste it.
A big irritation for many of us is the shameless promotion of dried cranberries. Many recipes call for dried crans instead of raisins. But dried crans are a by-product, left behind when making cran juice. The hulls are dried, pressed, and then SUGAR is ADDED. If you ever taste a raw cran, it is too tart or bitter to eat. So please use raisins and help the California farmers.
The San Joaquin Valley is the producer of the best raisins in the world. Many other countries now produce raisins, such as China, and Afghanistan. While their quality is not close, they sell at a much lower price, keep the price of our raisins down. You can certainly understand the plight of the small farmer, as foreign competition keeps prices down. Yet we are confronted with issues of quality and safety, like the recent spinach and pepper problems. It will get worse before it gets better. We lose valuable farmland in this country every day, to homes and shopping centers. The farmer cannot be blamed for selling to a developer, or leasing his land to the highest bidder. If you think the war over gas is bad, wait until we fight over water and food.