Wine can teach us a lot about the modern food system.
When Prohibition began in 1920, vineyards throughout the United States responded to the absence of large-scale wine producers by tearing out the grapevines used for commercially-processed wines and replacing them with table grapes and grapes suited for bathtub wine since small-scale home production remained legal. While the previous grapes were selected primarily for flavor, these new grapes were selected according to a different criteria. Because they needed to travel great distances in order to reach individual households, viticulturualists made durability the primary selection criteria. Flavor was sacrificed and the American wine industry suffered a major setback.
American produce has followed the same pattern. During World War II, Americans setup Victory Gardens which grew 40 percent of the nation's produce in 20 million backyards. Following the war, the American workforce professionalized and Americans had less time to grow their own food. People no longer grew their own food, they purchased it in a context where price and transportability were key.
The logic of Prohibition era vintners was applied to other fresh produce and flavor suffered. One of the easiest ways to measure the quality of a tomato is the same technique that viticulturalists use to assess wine grapes. Brix measures sugar content and can be calculated using a simple hand-held refractometer. Most table grapes, for example, measure between 16 and 20 Brix. Wine grapes have higher Brix counts, usually in the mid-20s. Brix provides early insight into whether a harvest of grapes will produce extraordinary wine or not.
Brix scores for tomatoes are substantially lower. After all, tomatoes are not nearly as sweet as grapes. Most medium-sized red supermarket tomatoes will score around four. A decent tomato at the farmers market should score around six, with some scoring higher and some lower depending on the varietal. When I tested tomatoes at a local farmers market last year, most scored between four and five. Homegrown tomatoes can score substantially higher. When we tested tomatoes grown at Farmscape last year, scores ranged from five to nine. Sweeter cherry tomatoes (like sun gold) scored higher while medium-sized and beefsteak tomatoes scored a bit lower.
The discrepancy in Brix scores between supermarket, farmers market and homegrown tomatoes may not come as a surprise to some, but the magnitude of the differential is astounding. We are sacrificing a lot of flavor in our quest for cheap, easily shipped food.
Sweetness isn't the only characteristic that makes tomatoes good. According to Dr. Harry Klee, a horticulturalist at the University of Florida, there are flavors of "bananas, honey, roses, apples, melon rinds, vanilla, berries, sweaty cheese, peaches, chocolate, lawn clippings, lemongrass and wasabi" in the flavor of tomatoes. Of course, I struggle to identify most of those flavors just as I've struggled to identify elements of raspberry, oak, cherry, rose, honey, chocolate, black currant or cedar in wine. I'm generally satisfied if I can identify the tartness in a good acidic tomato like Green Zebra or the crisp sweetness of a sun gold tomato that make it so delicious when combined with fresh basil and mozzarella on a Caprese skewer
More developed palates, however, can detect these flavor elements. This is why some of the best restaurants in the United States go to great lengths to source the premium produce to serve alongside their fine wines. Tom Colicchio's Riverpark Restaurant in New York set up Riverpark Farm on a nearby vacant lot so that he could procure fresh, customized produce for his patrons. And Niki Nakayama's kaiseki restaurant, n/naka, in Los Angeles grows its own hard-to-find Japanese vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.
As localized food systems increasingly provide consumers access to high-quality fresh produce, more people can now experience tasty alternatives to industrialized produce. But not everyone is excited to transition from cheap and convenient to fresh and flavorful.
Ingrained preferences are difficult to alter. In the decades following Prohibition, Americans strongly preferred sweet jug wines and fortified wines like port and sherry since they had become accustomed to those flavors. It took a surprise victory by American winemakers in multiple categories at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 to usher in the modern era of American wines that are now considered some of the best in the world.
Tomatoes have a way to go before produce aficionados are reading scores and reviews by a tastemaker like Robert Parker. Heirloom tomato varietals offer many unique flavors, and enthusiasts are only beginning to develop the vernacular to do these diverse flavors justice. Relatively few producers, meanwhile, cultivate tomatoes for maximum flavor. But the industry is headed in this direction. It's only a matter of time before tomatoes have their Paris Wine Tasting moment.