Rosé Berries Have Arrived
Several years into the millennial-pink phenomenon, that tender queen-conch color still has us in its grip. Why? Thirty-five years ago, when the first millennials were being born, Ronald Regan declared that it was morning in America. Now that the sun is setting on all that, the pink moment feels consolatory, a wistful look from the end of the dock, the last flash of brightness before dark. Millennial pink casts end times in soft light. Time to crack open a can of sparkling rosé.
This summer, blush has come to strawberries, which for generations have embodied the idea of red nearly as much as an orange does its color. Strawberries, a three-billion-dollar industry in California, are sensitive indicators of the national mood—bellwethers of environmental change, labor crises, consumer expectations. The latest innovation from the berry behemoth Driscoll’s—the company that introduced the plastic clamshell to fruit and defined the strawberry in our minds as wasp-waisted, full-chested, and lipstick red—is a rosé strawberry, “the least red berry,” the company says, it’s ever released to the American market. Rosé berries are a “limited edition,” scant and seasonal, available only June through September, and twice as expensive as the regular Driscoll’s berry, something special for the special few.
In strawberries, red means ripe. Red means sweet. White or pink strawberries, we tend to think, are sour, unripe, a coming cramp. (This assumption is due, in part, to the well-developed cold chain in the United States, which means that berries can be picked ripe and held in that state, as they move from the field to refrigerated trucks to the chilly, misty produce section of the grocery store.) In the wild, berries can be white when ripe. For decades, Driscoll’s has been working with the germplasm of the White Carolina, the oldest strawberry cultivar. White Carolinas are full of gamma-Decalactone, esters that convey the flavor of a mid-summer peach. But the fruit, tiny and unproductive, looks like a slapped face, collapsing. “The color was blotchy and uneven, and the fruit was pretty soft, but the flavor was good,” Phil Stewart, a plant breeder at Driscoll’s, who has dreamed of commercializing non-red berries, told me recently. “I, for a while, concluded it was never going to make a commercial project, and kept it around for the flavor. This generation, we felt we had an attractive berry.”
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Dana Goodyear on how Driscoll’s reinvented the strawberry, from the August 14, 2017, issue of the magazine.
One day, when Driscoll’s marketing team gathered to discuss the possibility of selling non-red berries, several members of the team, coincidentally, were wearing rosé-colored sweatshirts; others had on millennial-pink nail polish. Frances Dillard, who directs the team, said, “It’s hard to miss the rosé trend with our millennial consumers. There’s spillover to fashion and symbolically anything that has to do with a summer mind-set. In conversations with Phil, we’ve talked about how it’s so special and symbolic of the chillin’ life style that millennials symbolize.”
To be clear: a rosé berry does not taste like rosé, nor is it infused with wine or genetically modified to contain Whispering Angel DNA. (Driscoll’s uses traditional breeding methods, aided by modern chemical analysis, allowing the breeders to select for certain traits.) The other day, a FedEx truck arrived at my house, bearing a cooler of pinks that had been picked the previous morning in Watsonville, California, where Driscoll’s has its headquarters. The berries were smaller than the typical Driscoll’s workhorse, cute as grannies, powder-puff at their pinkest, with patches of yellow-ish white. I rinsed them and ate them straight from the colander, tossing their scalps aside in a heap. The flavor was subtle, a floral, peach perfume, the kind of taste you hunt for by eating more, one you can smell as much as you can taste. In the late afternoon, I took some to the beach and shared them with some young friends there, a pleasant complement to their chillin’ life style.
For Driscoll’s, the rosé berry is a hit, coasting to fame on Instagrammers’ love of pink-wine posts. “From a social-media perspective, consumers are really pairing the fruit with their rosé wine and bubbles,” Dillard said. “We’ve seen a lot of posts where they’re having rosé parties. They’re already having them, so it’s in addition to their current life style. There are a lot of champagne posts with the product. FreshDirect did one where they were pouring rosé champagne, and it was coming out as rosé berries.” But, long before the berries hit the market, Phil Stewart, the breeder, knew he had a winner. “In my twelve years here, never had people line up to have the fruit from the test plot the way they did for the pink strawberry,” he said. “It’s a hot commodity.”
Does it feel like the pink glow before the gloom? In a way, it does. The strawberry industry is shrinking, with fewer fields under cultivation and the cost of hiring pickers for the back-wrecking job of stooping over rows increasing. (A change in California labor law, mandating overtime pay for agricultural workers, has altered farm economies; plus, the labor force is nowhere to be found.) But the real changes have come from an authority higher than the California labor department or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—that is, the angered weather gods. The foggy coastal environment where strawberries thrive is undergoing drastic environmental change, with hotter summers and more saline soils. At the University of California, Davis, the public source for new strawberry varieties, the mandate is to fight for the crop’s survival. Breeders there are selecting for disease-resistance and testing their plants on hotter, hillier inland farms, off the coastal plain. “I personally believe that the climactic changes we’re experiencing right now are real, and the world’s heading in that direction,” Steve Knapp, a plant geneticist who runs the Davis program, told me. “We’re out breeding in these environments, and, whatever’s changing in those environments, we’re adapting to.” The names of some of the varieties that Davis is releasing to farmers this fall suggest an industry girded for battle with the elements: Victor, Valiant, Warrior.