A company called Mojave Gold LLC is probably one of the best-kept secrets in Riverside County. After all, its vineyards are tucked away in the Coachella Valley in sleepy Thermal.
But Mojave Gold is producing its own kind of gold: a specialty raisin from red grapes grown on 150 acres.
These wrinkled little delicacies are actually black, shaped like teardrops and described as plump, meaty and very sweet because of a higher sugar concentration.
They're not cheap. Retail prices start at $1 an ounce. That's because they're hand-picked, washed, dried faster with hush-hush techniques, hand-clipped, hand-packed and sold on their woody stem in clusters.
So far, domestic distribution is limited. Most of the demand is in Asia. Mojave Gold's owner and wholesaler Don J. Kizirian ships more than 95 percent of the 200 tons he harvests a year to Japan. There, connoisseurs consume the raisins with wine and cheese -- the dried fruit's sweetness the perfect counterpoint -- or use them as garnishes.
The county's Economic Development Agency's Office of Foreign Trade recently honored Kizirian for helping to develop the area as one of the nation's top 23 exporting regions. This past summer Mojave Gold gave the county another economic boost when it opened its 16,000-square-foot packing house and two 6,000-square-foot buildings used for fumigation at 74-100 Fillmore St. in Thermal.
"This business benefits us in tremendous ways," said Tom Freeman, a foreign trade commissioner for Riverside County. "Don brought in more than 40 jobs and increased property tax revenues because of his investment. These raisins are amazing, plumper, juicier and meatier than the usual ones."
In Japan, the wine and cheese and raisins are served together in fine dining establishments.
If Kizirian, 68, has his way, his raisins will become a household delicacy in the USA. Next year he plans to hit up specialty markets and wine and cheese shops. "The sky's the limit," he said. "We'll grow more grapes. Supply is not an issue."
His largest domestic customer is the Los Alamitos-based Frieda's Inc., which sells his product repackaged as Frieda's Raisins on the Vine. They retail for $15.99 for three 4-ounce packages.
Mojave Gold's raisins, repackaged as Raisins on the Stem at The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, are extremely popular, according to Marsha Krebs, who handles the shop's product development. One bag containing two bunches retails for $5. "They're easy to grab, look great on a platter and go really well with our cheeses or eaten alone as a snack," she said. "They're absolutely delicious."
Kizirian, a modest, self-made man, has had a lifelong love affair with farming. "So much is common sense," he said. "You get good or you go broke."
Kizirian got really good. So good, that he's patented new equipment for the raisin industry. So good that he shuttles between his business in Thermal and his original plant in Caruthers, near Fresno, where he processes the traditional, smaller, off-the-stem "loose" raisins. He sells them under 65 labels to such giants as Ralphs and Stater Bros. Markets.
Kizirian began exporting this ordinary variety raisin to Japan in 1986, where they're baked into bread and muffins. When Asian distributors clamored for the prized, pricier clusters, Kizirian rose to the raisin challenge. Six years later he started leasing 800 acres in Cadiz to farm red flame seedless grapes, a common table fruit sold in every market. However, it's the labor-intensive harvesting processes that turn them into gourmet stars.
In 1995, the property owner bought a large company that started farming the land. Undaunted, Kizirian bought four ranches on 345 acres in the Coachella Valley to continue raising cluster raisins. They were too brittle to ship up north to his huge plant, so for the next decade, he used Desert Valley Date's packing facility.
As his business grew every year, shipping became a bigger challenge. Two years ago, Mojave Gold began building its own production plant, which opened July 31. Raisin king Kizirian has designed a trellis system that cuts pruning costs by 20 percent. He also invented a secret drying process that expedites the work of the sun.
Kizirian, who employs 46 workers, said that 300 job-seekers applied. In one room, 18 women wearing head covers clip off loose stems and defective berries. Each tray passes through a metal detector to detect buckshot from hunters. Other women ready the raisins for shipping by separating them in layers of bubble pack, making sure they're not intertwined.
For much of year, when he's running Mojave Gold, Kizirian lives in La Quinta. "I could never live in a big city," he said. "I'm a farmer." A remarried widower, he returns to Caruthers as often as possible to join his wife Lynette and run his other plant.
But Kizirian loves the mountains and stillness of the Coachella Valley -- plus the fact that it's paradise for raisin-making.
"It's the only place in the U.S. where the grapes can dry on the vine without weather-related problems," he said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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