The Other Rainier: The making and marketing of Washington's celebrity fruit

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Blessed with radiant skin and flushed cheeks, the Rainier cherry is the prettiest and sweetest orb in the orchard. In the Pacific Northwest, it annually launches the summer season with limited runs at farmers markets, produce stands and grocery stores. It has overcome a notoriously temperamental personality and matured into international idol. In Japan, a single Rainier commands as much as 85 cents an appearance, performing for refined audiences on dainty dessert plates.

Fame, however, carries many hazards. The Rainier runs the risk of being exploited and overexposed, of becoming another glamorous diva that grudgingly gives way to a blushing newcomer.

Perhaps the ingenue will begin as humbly as the Rainier did, as a fragile flower a fluke, in fact on a farm halfway between Yakima and Richland, and therefore squarely in the middle of nowhere.

HAD IT NOT BEEN for the Great Freeze of 1949, the Rainier might never have been born, or even discovered. That year, Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser hired a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota to breed new varieties of peach suited for the arid Eastern Washington climate. But when the weather turned irritable that winter and the peach-tree buds froze to death, the young scientist turned his expert attention to a different fruit: the sweet cherry.

Bing was king — plump, sweet, firm, rich in hue and easy to pick and pack. But its brief growing season limited profits for the orchard owners whose interests the research center served. So the scientist — his name was Harold Fogle — sought to create a new variety of Bing. The new cherry would be more plump, more firm, and made to ripen earlier or later than its sibling Bing so the cherry-buying season could last much longer. Fogle set his sights on a particularly prolific Bing tree in the research center's orchard. Carefully, he shielded it from the elements, surrounding it with a wood-framed cage swathed in cheesecloth.

And here's what that lucky Bing tree got in return for being so fertile: It got emasculated.

Deflowered, really, as Fogle and a crew of assistants, mostly students, carried out the tedious job of removing from each and every blossom the "male" anthers, which host the fertilizing pollen, and leaving only the "female" pistils, which contain the egg-bearing ovaries. Fogle already had harvested pollen from trees that grew Vans, a dark-cherry variety with less commercial appeal than the Bing. Carrying vials full of the Van's pale-yellow dust, Fogle and his assistants climbed ladders and made out like bees, dipping glass rods into the vials, then swabbing the precious Van pollen on the tip of each pistil along one entire limb. If the genetic cross was engineered correctly — and Fogle made no mistakes — each cherry growing on that limb that summer would carry a seed bearing the parental stamp of a Bing and a Van. Fogle picked the cherries from that limb, removed the pits and, from them, the seeds, which he then planted in a sand-and-soil mixture designed to promote germination. From that single limb, about 200 seedlings sprouted, each genetically different from the other — in much the same way every human is similar yet distinct. The seedlings grew in a greenhouse along with about 1,600 others that were products of different cherry crosses Fogle had made that summer.

As Fogle transferred the seedlings from the greenhouse to a field, their different quirks began revealing themselves. Some of the young trees grew stout, others tall. Some had shiny leaves, others dull. Every three or four days, Fogle walked up and down the rows of trees, examining their health and vigor. When they matured enough to bear fruit, Fogle picked the cherries, testing the fruit for size, sugar content and taste. He never imagined that within the litter of the Bing-Van cross would be an albino pup.

"I was just as surprised as anyone that 'white' ones showed up," recalls Fogle, now 86 and living in Maryland. "At that time, we didn't really understand the genetics of cherries."

Both dark cherries carried a recessive gene of a white cherry, meaning a Bing and a Van could produce a Rainier in much the way two brown-eyed parents can procreate a blue-eyed child. As Fogle sampled the odd offspring, identified then only by the coding number P 1-680, he found it to be more lovable than the rest.

"That one cherry stood out from the moment I first saw it ripen," Fogle says. "It was quite large and fairly firm for a white cherry. We taste-tested the whole bunch, and this one was outstanding."

But it also was delicate and hard to handle.

UPSTREAM ON the Columbia River, north of Wenatchee, Grady Auvil was constantly on the lookout for tasty new fruit. Using his orchard as a testing ground, he introduced several varieties of peach, nectarine and apple to Washington state, including today's best-selling Granny Smith.

"My father, he was a visionary," says John Auvil, Grady's youngest.

Aware of Auvil's reputation, Harold Fogle paid him a visit, persuading him to plant a few P 1-680 trees for the sake of advancing the scientific testing. At first, Auvil was impressed not by the delicious cherries but by the powerful pollen the trees produced. When interspersed with Bings, the P 1-680s appreciably boosted the production of the valuable dark cherries. Figuring the white cherries were worthless, though, Auvil let them rot on the branch and fall to the ground.

The only white variety making money for Pacific Northwest orchardists back then was the Royal Ann, smallish but flavorful cherries sold either for maraschinos or canning whole in syrup. One Yakima Valley grower had tried to sell the Royal Ann fresh, promoting it as the "Golden Bing." He picked, packed and shipped them the same way he did dark cherries, bouncing them into pails and running them along mechanized conveyor belts. But unlike dark Bings, which have mahogany skin that camouflages blemishes, the Golden Bings showed every bruise from the rough handling. By the time Golden Bings arrived to consumers, they looked as sad as overripe bananas.

Grady Auvil had heard about the fiasco, but his competitive drive got the best of him, which turned out all the better for us. Working in his orchard, Auvil regularly picked the plump Rainiers to snack on, and he thought they tasted great. He brought the cherries home to his wife and three kids, he slid them in front of employees of Auvil Fruit Co. during board meetings, and pushed them on his buddies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

They liked them, too.

"The Rainier is a water bag of sugar," John Auvil says. A Bing has more zing, but a Rainier is candy.

By the early 1970s, Grady Auvil had instructed his president and general manager, Paul King, to arrange for a limited number of Rainiers to be picked with care and packed by hand to protect the fruit from bruising. King then loaded 100 cushioned boxes full of cherries with perfect complexions on a train to New York to sell at auction. Samples were handed out. Produce wholesalers bought them, but at the same price as Bings. That wasn't good enough to cover the higher costs of harvesting Rainiers. Auvil tried again the following year. This time, the Rainiers brought back twice the price of Bings. That's when Grady Auvil knew he had something. For a decade, Auvil Fruit Co. cornered the very narrow market on fresh Rainiers.

"We're growing a yellow cherry up here that's tremendously profitable," Grady said in the January 1983 edition of The Grower, an agriculture trade journal. "I don't know why more people don't do it."

Yakima Valley growers, who regularly met with the WSU scientists in Prosser, had long been sweet on the Rainier. Richard Ormiston, whose orchard was two miles from the research center, harvested his first crop in about 1967. Don Olmstead, a Grandview grower, planted a large block in 1972 to replace an orchard of Royal Anns wiped out in a winter freeze. Both farmers were selling their Rainiers for canning, and, for a while, that served them well. But by 1983, the bottom had fallen out of the canning market as processing costs increased and consumer tastes shifted from processed fruit to fresh fruit.

"At the time, I felt like having the largest Rainier cherry orchard in the valley was more curse than blessing," says Gary Ormiston, who by then had taken over the family orchard from his retired father.

At a board meeting of Snokist, a cooperative through which valley growers sold their fruit, word came down that the co-op planned to purchase only a third of the 1983 season's projected Rainier yield. Don Olmstead Jr., who had joined the Snokist board that year after his father retired, remembers "sitting in the back and raising my hand like the new kid in school. I said, 'How do you expect us to be good members of the co-op when you are doing this to us growers?' "

Channeling Grady Auvil as guru, the valley growers scrambled to salvage the crop by marketing the Rainiers as a fresh-fruit cherry under Snokist's Blue Ribbon label. They instituted the same kind of careful picking and packing techniques that Auvil had revolutionized. Pickers doubled as quality-control agents, discarding those cherries that were too bruised or too puny. The pay rate for picking Rainiers was as much as six times what it was for picking Bings, but some pickers became frustrated by the fussiness of the job. Since Bings could be gathered quickly and casually, pickers could sometimes earn more on them.

"It was hard on the pickers and on ourselves," Gary Ormiston says. "We never had to fire pickers. They'd all just quit."

As the orchardists tried to avert mutiny, a Snokist salesman tantalized buyers with a printed promotion featuring a lifelike sketch of Washington's tallest mountain:

"Washington State's Mount Rainier is over 14,000 feet and is usually pure white from fresh clean snow. In the early morning light it takes on a soft pink blush and at sunset lights up the horizon with a brilliant fire-red glow. Interestingly, the Northwest cherry industry is now promoting the sale of a cherry variety with its own similar brand of distinctiveness. It's the Rainier Cherry. And like the landmark from which it takes its name, it is lightly colored with a notable pink to brilliant red blush."

SNOKIST MARKETED Rainier cherries as premium fruit, hoping to earn a price that more than covered the extra investment to harvest them. Sales focused on upscale grocery stores, the type that sculpts pineapples into surfboards for displays. The co-op set minimum standards on sugar content and size, promoting its Rainiers as the "Mighty 1" — a reminder that each piece of fruit was at least 1 inch in diameter.

By the end of the 1980s, the Rainier also was getting exposure at Pike Place Market, where locals and tourists both became enamored of the mysterious fruit. The cherry's yellow-and-red color drew them to the stalls, but it was taste that sealed the deal. For those who strolled the market's arcades, the Rainier also had special selling points over the Bing: It didn't leave a stain if the juice dripped on your shirt and you were less likely to have to run to the john after eating a bag.

"People would ask, 'Are they cherries or plums? Are they sweet?' " says Bill Razey, a Yakima Valley farmer who has sold cherries at Pike Place for more than 20 years. "Even now, people still swoon over them. They ask, 'Are these the last ones of the season?' They just can't stand to be without them."

But the Rainier receives the biggest star treatment in Japan. Soon after the Japanese government allowed the importing of Rainiers in 1992, food exporter Toshi Omatsu of Torrance, Calif., introduced himself to Grady Auvil, whom he read about in a magazine.

"I never tasted a Rainier cherry before," Omatsu says. "By the time I go up there in 1992, the season is already over. There are no more cherries left for me to try. I jump in anyways. I have no idea how great they taste."

After some cajoling, Omatsu persuaded Auvil Fruit to invest in equipment that fumigates the cherries, which is required for export. The 1993 Rainier season was almost over by the time Japanese authorities inspected Auvil's fumigation chamber and approved delivery of the Rainiers.

"We ship for only one week of the season," Omatsu says. "The receiver on the Japan side is very excited, even though the quality of the fruit at the end of the season is not as good. I see and taste the fruits throughout the season. They are beautiful, and they taste great. So I have confidence that if we can ship throughout an entire season, we'll be successful."

Today, about half of Auvil Fruit's Rainier crop is shipped to Japan. In that country, the more difficult a food is to obtain, the more consumers crave it and are willing to pay to get it. Musk melon, kind of a green cantaloupe, sells for about $100 each in Japan. Auvil's Rainiers are sold under the Gee Whiz label. A one-kilogram (2.2-pound) box, which contains about 80 pieces of fruit, goes for $68, including delivery by a courier service that keeps the cherries refrigerated in transit. Each Rainier cherry sent to Japan has to be perfect because the fruit is served as a delicacy — one, two or maybe three to a plate. Many are purchased as Chugen, an annual gift-giving tradition in early July. The timing of the Rainier season couldn't be better.

In these parts, Rainiers cost $1, $2 or maybe $3 more a pound than Bings. Every grocery chain sells them, it seems, even the budget ones. California orchards grow Rainiers without the same quality standards many Pacific Northwest growers apply, yet market them as premium fruit. And this summer, on a shoulder of some state highway, someone you'll never see again will sell "Rainiers" at a cut-rate price because the cherries probably aren't Rainiers at all, but rather the inferior Royal Anns. The good name of the Rainier threatens to become besmirched, a victim of its own star power.

"I live in fear that someone will develop something that looks like a Rainier but can bounce without bruising or even be machine-harvested," Don Olmstead Jr. says. "And then something that is the diamond of fruit instead becomes something cheap that inundates the market."

THE INFINITESIMAL odds behind the Rainier cherry's breeding still boggle the mind. If the pollenization never took, if the seed failed to germinate, if the seedling died during transplant to the field, if a gopher ate its roots, if a bad storm killed the tree, if Harold Fogle automatically wrote off white cherries in pursuit of a better Bing, if he didn't recognize an exceptional cherry when he tasted one, the Rainier never would have been.

A half-century has passed since Fogle's discovery. Grady Auvil is gone now, but the other elders, Ormiston and Olmstead, are fine. WSU-Prosser's sweet-cherry program has been taken over by a 31-year-old Canadian horticulturist named Matthew Whiting, who rides a motorcycle to work. The research center continues to revere the Rainier, its walls plastered with glossy pin-ups of perfect specimens.

And in the same orchard where Fogle tasted the Rainier for the first time, new varieties of cherry grow on trees planted in rows like chorus lines, each hoping to get picked by Matthew Whiting.

Stuart Eskenazi is a Seattle Times staff writer.