It's no news that American agribusiness, with the enthusiastic support of university-based agricultural scientists, pretty much destroyed the American tomato. But now at least one horticultural scientist and his colleagues say redemption is at hand.
Big Food wanted a tomato that could be shipped and stocked in supermarkets without damage. Big Ag scientists delivered. Over decades, plant geneticists and horticulturists helped perfect a tomato so impervious to damage that it could be dropped from a height of 6 feet without its skin breaking (the infamous Walter tomato).
The modern American tomato was deemed perfect. Except for one thing: It was tasteless. Yet the tomato industry, and the university scientists who served it, issued a stream of denials that there was anything wrong with the commercial American tomato.
The late Charles Rick (1915–2002), a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, who was the undisputed father of tomato genetics, once declared, "I don't think it's right to attribute poor market quality to breeding. That's a bunch of nonsense."
Yet now, in a recent issue of Science magazine, Harry Klee, a horticultural scientist at the University of Florida and the lead author of a study on tomato flavor, effectively begs to differ. The study flatly states, "Modern commercial tomato varieties are substantially less flavorful than heirloom varieties."
"To understand and ultimately correct this deficiency," say the authors of the study, "we quantified flavor-associated chemicals in 398 modern, heirloom, and wild accessions. … We found that modern commercial varieties contain significantly lower amounts of many of these important flavor chemicals than older varieties."
In an article reporting on the study in The New York Times, professor Klee says, "Think of the tomato flavor as a symphony with lots of notes. Over the last 50 years, they’ve removed one instrument at a time."
Some 26 genes are critical to producing flavorful volatiles, according to the study. The problem? Modern tomato varieties have versions of these genes that produce smaller amounts of the volatiles than heirloom varieties.
The answer? Create a hybrid tomato (by traditional crossbreeding rather than genetic engineering) that restores full-fledged genes that create flavor. “Now we know exactly what needs to be done to make it right. We just have to turn the crank,” says professor Klee.
Talk about coming full circle.
Surely you know where I'm going with this. The similarities between tomatoes (which is a fruit, after all) and wine grapes are considerable. With both tomatoes and fine-wine grapes it's a matter of nuance, of trace elements, of an interplay of sometimes infinitesimal yet vital compounds.
True, tomatoes have seen vastly more genetic manipulation than grapes. Still, there's been plenty of cross-breeding with wine grapes over the past century, never mind clonal selection within traditional grape varieties.
Yet would anyone submit that any of the many wine-grape hybrids, such as Scheurebe, Ruby Cabernet, Flora, Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch, Rubired or Seyval, to name just a few, are superior to heirloom grapes? They serve, especially in extreme growing conditions. But they fail to conquer.
With the advent of clonal selections in fine-wine grapes, such as the now-widespread Dijon clones of Pinot Noir named after the Burgundy-based research program that selected and endorsed specific strains, we're now seeing, as we did with tomatoes, a narrowband spectrum of preferred commercial characteristics that compromise "flavor as a symphony with lots of notes."
In wine today we are experiencing a loss, to greater or lesser degrees depending upon the grape variety, of a "symphony with lots of notes" thanks to a narrowing of clonal diversity and an equal narrowing of the definition of ideal ripeness, which means ever-later picking times. ("We pick each clonal block at optimal ripeness.")
Add to that an increasingly common, if furtive, addition of water to the fermenting juice (called "watering back") to compensate for the dehydration of grapes intentionally picked late and the use of post-fermentation techniques such as spinning cones and reverse osmosis machines to reduce alcohol, and you've got a potent mix of forces.
The combination creates a fine-wine equivalent of a supermarket tomato: perfect, yet soulless and contrived.
Professor Klee himself was dismayed that one of his young students preferred a tasteless supermarket tomato over a flavorful heirloom variety in a tasting panel. “Have we trained a whole generation," he asked, "that doesn’t know what a good tomato is?”
Good question. Can we now ask the same about, say, excessively overripe Cabernet Sauvignons? Or Pinot Noirs composed of just a handful in flavor-intensive clonal selections?
Is a new generation of wine drinkers now being trained to think that mere flavor intensity—the more, the better—is the determinant of quality? And, moreover, that the very word "nuance" is suspect, even illegitimate? Or worse yet, that it's not even understood as a concept? You tell me.