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Coral Champagne cherries ripen after Chelan and about ten days before Bing.

Coral Champagne cherries ripen after Chelan and about ten days before Bing.

New tree fruit varieties can take decades before going mainstream and ­becoming popular with industry and ­consumers. Coral Champagne is a good example.

The early sweet cherry variety that came out of the University of California’s sweet cherry breeding program at Davis illustrates the time it can take before new varieties take root and the sometimes circuitous route to popularity.

Last year, Coral Champagne was the third-leading sweet cherry variety shipped from California. Bing still dominates the variety list—more than 5.2 million boxes of the state’s nearly 8.48 million boxes shipped in 2012 were Bing, according to data of the California Cherry Research and Marketing Board. But Coral Champagne, with more than 786,500 boxes shipped, has moved ahead of its cousin Brooks that tallied around 684,000 boxes. Tulare continues to be an important variety and ranked second with some 916,000 boxes shipped. Boxes are the equivalent of 18 pounds.

Coral Champagne, though never officially released, is an alumnus with Brooks, a UC variety that was patented and released in 1984. Brooks has had a major impact on cherry production in California, helping expand sweet cherry production beyond traditional cherry-growing regions. The lower number of chilling hours needed for Brooks (400 compared to Bing’s 700) and its propensity to produce fewer double fruits than Bing when grown in southern San Joaquin Valley allowed growers to expand cherry production to warmer areas of the valley.

Since the release of Brooks and Tulare cultivars, cherry acreage and production value has increased dramatically in Kern County, an area that includes Bakersfield, its county seat. Tulare is another low-chill, early variety patented in 1988 by Lowell Glen Bradford and Norman Glen Bradford of Le Grand, California. The most recent data compiled by the state’s ­agricultural department (2011) showed that although Kern County has only 15 percent of the state’s cherry acreage, it produced almost 50 percent of the value of the state’s cherries. By hitting the ­season first, Kern County growers typically receive record-high cherry prices in both export and domestic markets.

About half of the state’s estimated 40,000 cherry acres are located in San Joaquin County,  centered near Stockton, which produced about 20 percent of the state’s total cherry value in 2011.

Origin

The origin of Coral Champagne is hazy due to incomplete or missing breeding records and the fade of time. Two selections called Coral and Champagne were once in the germplasm at UC’s Wolfskill Experimental Orchard, according to Dr. Kitren Glozer, UC horticulturist. “That is not definitive, however, as there has been much misidentification over the years and the selection block currently standing isn’t even the original selection block planted at Wolfskill,” she said in an e-mail.

Glozer added that the variety appears to have been bred in the 1950s, before cherry breeder Paul Hansche joined the UC breeding program. Hansche inherited the majority of the selections and did advanced selection and limited breeding work with the collection. “Brooks came out of this chain of events, and I believe that Coral or Coral Champagne did also.”

Hansche joined UC’s cherry breeding program in the 1960s and made cherry crosses for several years before the program was ­discontinued in the early 1970s. However, UC researchers and others continued to evaluate Hansche’s crosses long after he left.

Ross Sanborn, UC Extension farm advisor for Contra Costa County, worked closely with Hansche in evaluating UC selections and is said to have given germplasm away to nurseries and possibly growers. Sanborn is credited for ­discovering and naming Coral Champagne.

The actual source of the germplasm Hansche used is unknown and may have come from bud wood cut from the original seedling block or from one or more plantings in advanced selection blocks.

“The bud wood may have been from a single clone, or multiple clones, and since the items sold from the various ­nurseries have not been genotyped, we don’t really know if they are the same or not,” said Glozer.

Search for early

Contra Costa farm advisor Janet Caprile succeeded Sanborn in 1989 when he retired. “Ross had a good relationship with cherry breeder Hansche and routinely planted his numbered selections in Brentwood,” she said in a phone interview with Good Fruit Grower. In the late 1970s, Sanborn was looking for early cherries for ­Brentwood growers so they could more effectively compete with their Stockton counterparts. Brentwood is located about 35 miles east of Stockton and has similar growing conditions.

Caprile added that Sanborn saw promise in the early maturing Brooks and a numbered selection. “By the end of the 1980s, he had given the numbered selection the name of Coral Champagne,” she said.

It’s not clear if UC or Sanborn sought to patent the Coral Champagne variety. Some say that once UC had patented Brooks, the university focused attention on its next most promising variety and attempted to patent Coral ­Champagne. Others recall that Sanborn tried to patent the selection. Regardless, the selection had been so widely ­distributed that the federal patent office denied the ­application.

Henry Sanguinetti, a fruit tree broker from Sacramento, recalled that Coral Champagne almost never made it. “After playing with it for eight years, Sanborn thought it a failure,” he said in a phone interview. Sanborn had been planting the selection on Mahaleb rootstock and the trees were ­overcropped and the fruit matured late.

“Next, Marty Vitale, a nursery manager, used it as a pollenizer for Brooks and Tulare in Bakersfield orchards for six to eight years,” said Sanguinetti. “But on precocious rootstock, it didn’t size well, so it got nearly killed down again.”

Once the variety was teamed with the less precocious rootstocks Mazzard and Colt it began to do well, he noted.

“It’s only been in the last eight years or so that Coral Champagne has been recognized as a sought-after variety,” ­Sanguinetti said. “Retailers began requesting the variety and in the last five to six years, it’s become the most widely planted variety in California.”