The History of California Raisins

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Ancient Times

It is believed that humans discovered raisins when they happened upon grapes drying on a vine.

1490 B.C. – History books first note raisins were sun-dried grapes. Between 120 and 900 B.C. , the first vineyards were developed. Muscat raisins, which are oversized with seeds and full of flavor, were grown in southern Spain. Farmers of Greece grew tiny, seedless, tangy raisins called currants.

11th century – Crusader knights first introduced raisins to Europe when they returned home from the Mediterranean. Packaging and shipping techniques were good enough to ship raisins throughout northern Europe.

14th century – Raisins became an important part of European cuisine. Spaniards perfected viticulture, or grape growing. Roman physicians prescribed raisins to cure anything from mushroom poisoning to old age. Eventually, they became so valuable that two jars of raisins could be traded for one slave!

The Birth of California Raisin Country

18th century – Spanish missionaries in Mexico moved into California and helped farmers grow grapes for wine.

1851 – A marketable muscat for raisins, the Egyptian Muscat, was grown near San Diego. Since the area didn’t have sufficient water supply, farmers moved to the San Joaquin (wah keen) Valley, which has a mild climate and extensive irrigation system perfect for the art of viticulture.

1873 – Legend says California’s first raisin crop was grown by nature, not farmers. A massive heat wave hit the valley before harvest, and most of the grapes dried on the vine before farmers could pick them.

1876 – Scottish immigrant William Thompson grew a seedless grape variety that was thin-skinned, seedless, sweet and tasty. Today, of 204,191 acres of raisin grapes grown in California, 184,789 acres are Thompson Seedless (90%). See http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/index.asp

Late 1800s – Armenians descended from the first founders of vineyards in Persia began settling in the San Joaquin Valley. The area now supplies raisins for nearly half the world, making it the largest producer anywhere.

Raisins In Ancient Times

It is believed that humans discovered raisins when they happened upon grapes drying on a vine. History books note that raisins were sun-dried from grapes as long ago as 1490 B.C. But several hundred years passed before it was determined which grape variety would make the best raisin.

Raisins Favored by Greeks and Romans

Phoenicians and Armenians traded raisins with the Greeks and Romans, and the fruit became a favorite. Greeks and Romans decorated places of worship with raisins and handed them out to winners in sporting contests. Roman physicians prescribed raisins to cure anything from mushroom poisoning to old age. With their growing appeal came an increase in value. In fact, two jars of raisins could be traded for one slave in ancient Rome.

Ancient Warriors and Raisins

The fruit also became popular among famous warriors of the time. Emperor Augustus feasted on small roasted birds stuffed with raisins, and Hannibal stored raisins in his troop rations while they were crossing the Alps.

The First Vineyards

Sometime between 120 and 900 B.C., practical ways were developed to grow the grapes that would become raisins. At that time, Phoenicians started vineyards in Greece and southern Spain, and Armenians created vineyards in Persia (Turkey, Iran and Iraq). These areas not only had perfect climates for growing raisins, but they also were close to the first commercial markets for raisins-Greece and Rome. The vineyards of Spain grew muscat raisins, which are oversized, with seeds and full of flavor. Farmers of Corinth, Greece, grew another kind-tiny, seedless, tangy raisins called currants.

Raisins in Europe

In the 11th century, crusader knights first introduced raisins to Europe when they returned home from the Mediterranean. Packing and shipping techniques were good enough by that time to ship raisins throughout northern Europe.

By the 14th century, raisins became an important part of European cuisine. Raisin prices skyrocketed. The English, French and Germans attempted to grow grapes for raisins, but their climates were too cold for drying the fruit. In the meantime, Spaniards were perfecting viticulture, or grape growing. They were using grapes to make dry table wine, sweet dessert wines and muscat raisins.

The Birth Of California Raisin Country

Spain’s Queen Isabella sent missionaries to Mexico to teach natives about religion. While they were preaching and teaching, missionaries also passed on their knowledge of viticulture. They used grapes for sacramental wines and also grew muscat grapes for raisins.

By the 18th century, the Franciscan fathers had settled as far north as present-day Sonoma, California. But, when Spain turned power over to the colonial government of Mexico in 1834, the mission system began its decline. Viticulture – and its strong influence on California agriculture – was one of the mission’s enduring legacies.

Discovering Raisin Valley

The missionaries helped farmers grow grapes profitably for wine. But it wasn’t until 1851 that a marketable muscat grape for raisins, the Egyptian Muscat, was grown near San Diego. San Diego did not have a sufficient water supply for large vineyards, so farmers began to look elsewhere for better growing conditions. They found a perfect spot in the San Joaquin Valley. The Valley has a long, hot growing season and lots of sunshine. Although only 10 inches of rain fall on this area each year, an extensive irrigation system-started over 100 years ago-brings water from the Sierra Nevada, creating one of the most fertile valleys in the world.

The Grape "Born" to Be a Raisin

In 1876, Scottish immigrant William Thompson found an answer for raisin farmers. Thompson grew a seedless grape variety named Lady deCoverly, which was thin-skinned, seedless, sweet and tasty. When sun-dried, these grapes became the dark raisin so familiar today. It was discovered that with processing, they became the lighter golden raisins. Today, 204,191 acres of raisin grapes grown in California, 184,789 acres are Thompson Seedless (90%). See http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/index.asp

Immigrants Move to Raisin Country

The development of the San Joaquin Valley as the world’s largest producer of raisins can be credited in great part to the Armenians who began settling the area in the late 1800s. Descended from the people who first cultivated vineyards in Persia, the Armenians are recognized as some of the world’s most experienced viticulturists. Today, many California raisin growers are of Armenian descent. The fruitful valley also has attracted many other immigrants to become part of the California raisin industry.