Sweet perfection: Rainier cherries take patience, painstaking attention to detail and ideal conditions

ENTIAT, Chelan County — Washington growers are winding up a record sweet-cherry season that includes the biggest crop yet of some of the largest, sweetest and most highly sought after cherries in the world: pinup pretty Rainiers.

Growing, picking and packing this fussy fruit is an exacting art. Rainiers are an obsession for those who grow them well, an art form, a Grail, a nerve-racking, nail-biting business. A passing rain or hailstorm can wipe out a whole year's work.

Here in Washington, the world's biggest producer of sweet cherries, the Rainier is a celebrity fruit, commanding the highest cherry price but demanding the biggest production costs and risks.

Frost, birds, pests, spending $600 an hour on helicopters to blow-dry cherries doused with rain (they may split otherwise) — growing cherries makes gambling in Vegas look like a nice, steady job. And Rainiers are the most demanding cherries of all.

"You can't range-farm them," groans Kyle Mathison of Stemilt Growers, who jokes that for the sake of his marriage he stays out of the family's 25 acres of Rainier cherries at picking time, when only his wife, Jan, has the patience for perfection. "They aren't like cattle that you just turn out in the spring and pick up in the fall."

No, the Rainier has to be coddled, encouraged and babied every step of the way.

Workers stretch shiny Mylar sheeting between the rows of trees to reflect sunlight to each cherry and burnish their signature blush. They hand-pull the leaves from around the cherries to expose them to maximum sunlight. Tie branches with kite string so they won't rustle and scuff the fruit's lustrous surface. Pick the trees three, four and more times to gather each cherry at perfect color and ripeness. And handle each cherry as carefully as a brimming china teacup.

Why bother?

"Oh, I don't know," Mathison says with the cheerful exasperation of a man in love with a difficult — and beautiful — woman. "The glitter of the gold, I guess."

The flash of the cash, that is. While other fruits are a losing proposition, with prices below the cost of production, growers can make $1.50 a pound profit on Rainiers, compared with $1 a pound for red cherries — if everything goes just right.

What it takes

The Rainier is an accident of horticulture, a cherry originally grown only to pollinate other trees. But then it turned out to be delicious.

The Rainier, like all named varieties of fruit, won't sprout from a pit. Rather, it is planted from a rootstock that grafts two varieties of cherries together: the familiar Bing and the less-known Van.

The Bing was developed on the farm of Seth Lewelling in Western Oregon in 1875 and named for a Manchurian worker in his orchard. The Van is a thin-skinned, heart-shaped variety.

Harold Fogle at Washington State University's research station in Prosser developed the Rainier in the 1960s.

Retail prices range from $1.99 a pound to $5.99 a pound for the best-quality Rainiers at the beginning and end of the season. Because they are so hard to grow, they make up about 6 percent of the annual Northwest cherry crop.

Producing perfect Rainiers starts with finding the right piece of ground.

The best Rainiers are grown on low-elevation ground that soaks in the summer heat and is out of the wind.

Entiat grower Robert Dennis has a good site and the other absolute requirement: skilled workers.

"This one is too small. I want only the big ones," says Moises Vasquez, 35, a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, who has worked with Dennis since 1985. His experience shows:

Vasquez quickly but gently rubs the Rainiers from the trees, not tearing them, which could pull off the bud next to the top of the stem that is next year's crop.

He holds each cherry carefully by the stem, without touching the fruit, and lays it gently in the bucket around his neck. "We never drop it," Vasquez said. Indeed the orchard is quiet, with none of the steady plunk of fruit dropped in buckets heard in a red-cherry harvest.

Vasquez is the first step in quality control. He throws away fruit damaged by scuff marks, bird pecks, bruises or cracks, as he goes.

"See this one, he is a splitter, so I do this," Vasquez says, and with a deft flick of his wrist sends the offending Rainier flying, while still holding the stem of the perfect cherry it was joined to.

Vasquez also scrutinizes each cherry for color, picking only the perfectly ripe fruit that has gained a rosy glow. He'll pick the same tree more than four times, waiting to hand-pick each cherry at its peak of color and sweetness.

Unlike some other fruits, cherries won't ripen after they are picked, and they don't keep long.

That's part of their delight: In a world of year-round produce and some fruits stored as long as a year before purchase, fresh cherries are an ephemeral, seasonal delight, available only from June into August.

This crew is paid $8.50 an hour, instead of on a piecework basis, a common practice with Rainiers because workers have to go so slowly and meticulously.

Red-cherry pickers are paid by the pound, and a fast, skilled picker can make more than $100 a day.

Pickers are on the ladders by 6 a.m. and quit by 1 p.m. or often earlier. Picking stops when the temperature rises because heat softens the fruit. That makes it even more susceptible to bruising or losing its stems.

Handle with care

Dennis paces the orchard as the pick goes on, carrying the hallmarks of any good grower: a plastic 7-hole sizer and a test kit for checking the sweetness of the fruit right in the field.

The sizer harkens back to the days when cherries were packed in boxes in rows. Hence, the largest fruits actually earn the smallest-numbered rating: There were fewer big cherries in the row.

A so-called 7-row cherry is top size, a 12-row is a smaller fruit that will bring a lower price.

And while most cherries are at least 17 percent sugar, some of Dennis' best Rainiers register an astounding 30 percent. They are lumps of sugar on the tongue.

Most growers send their cherries to a commercial warehouse for packing. The fruit is rinsed in ice-cold water, sorted by size and picked over on moving belts by workers culling any imperfect fruit.

A small number of growers, including Dennis, run a field-pack operation, in which the fruit is rinsed, sorted and packed right in the orchard.

Because the cherries are so delicate, Stemilt's Wenatchee packing line for Rainiers runs at about 3.5 tons an hour, instead of the 18 tons an hour more typical for red cherries.

The cherries being packed on the line on a recent morning were bound for England. The fruit goes from orchard to supermarket in just three days.

Darcy Brown watches the line with an eye out for the signature Rainier blush: a warm rosy glow that must cover at least 15 percent of the fruit to make grade. Dennis sends only the biggest, most perfect fruit to the warehouse, where it is cooled and shipped across the country and around the world.

"Isn't that just beautiful?" Dennis sighs, allowing himself a moment to revel in the morning light glowing on heavy, lustrous clusters of perfect Rainiers hanging thick in his trees, two-bite big and sweet as candy.

"They are so pretty, just a wonderful cherry. That's why I do this."

Lynda V. Mapes can be reached at 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com