Valley rides pomegranates' popularity

Jim Simonian isn't the sort to sip pomegranate martinis, buff his skin with a pomegranate scrub or read the sort of magazines that would apprise him about Academy Award nominees getting Pom juice in their gift bags.

The latest thing is not his thing -- as you can gather on the journey to his pomegranate orchard.

His day starts in Fowler, population 5,293, where he's the mayor and has been on the city council for 14 years ("I don't think I'm going to run again," he says, "people call you every time a dog barks or someone steals their trash can lid.").

On the way to one-runway Selma airport, he points out the house where he was born and raised and the grapevines that his grandfather Paul Simonian planted about 1910 giving Simonian Farms its start. The plane he flies to the western Fresno County ranch, when it's not too foggy, is a 1974 Centurion II cared for so well it looks brand new.

At Pilibos Ranch, which Simonian Farms leases, he walks past the very first tractor that Mr. Pilibos ever bought, inside a ranch house where he exchanges a few words with Jess Urbanek, 87, the former ranch manager who has lived here 70 years.

He gets into a truck with Jess' son, Dwayne Urbanek, 47, the current farm manager, and they head out to a grove of the latest thing.

Pomegranates are popular right now -- the new blueberry, which is the fruit equivalent of the fashion world announcing a new black. Recent research and marketing informed the world of pomegranates' anti-aging properties. Now, people are eating them, drinking them and slathering them upon their bodies.

Elizabeth Arden's Red Door Spa in New York City is offering a Pomegranate Warm Stone Facial. At the Niagara Falls Marriott you can get a Pomegranate Pedicure. Bartenders nationwide are mixing pomegranates with sake or vodka or gin -- combining the benefits of a buzz and Botox because the pomegranate is supposed to promote youthful skin.

There are pomegranate juice mixes and teas of every description, a pomegranate antioxidant pill, and Trader Joe's carries pomegranate yogurt.

All of this has left Simonian, 64, who has been farming pomegranates for 40 years, puzzled, if not downright perplexed.

What happens when an old fruit, long grown in the San Joaquin Valley, becomes the latest chi-chi craze?

"Hey, do you drink?" Simonian asks. "Have you ever had one of those pomegranate martini things? Are they any good?"

Tough-to-eat treat

The pomegranate -- despite ancient renown of mythic proportions -- was until its recent glory an obscure, lumpy, leather-skinned fruit known mostly for being hard to eat without staining your shirt.

For the past 25 years, Garrett and Jane Wimer have had a yearly pomegranate jelly-making party at their Fresno home with its two pomegranate trees in the yard. Garrett even designed his own press to get the juices out of the infamously difficult pomegranate, with its catacombs of sweet/tart ruby seeds.

Garrett, 67, who teaches astronomy at Fresno City College, would often invite his students to the annual pomegranate party.

His students would often ask what a pomegranate was.

"I'd always say, 'What's a pomegranate?! Don't you know pomegranates saved the human race?' " Garrett recalls.

Then he'd tell an ancient myth about a god who became angry and planned to kill all humans. Another god intervened by saying, "Let me take care of that for you" and stained the sand with pomegranate juice to pass for the blood of the human race, until God No. 1 cooled off.

Some scholars believe there are biblical references to the pomegranate as the fruit on the Tree of Life. There's a Sanskrit word for pomegranate -- Indian royalty began their banquet with the fruit. Homer mentions pomegranates in "The Odyssey." Jewish custom holds that the pomegranate has 613 seeds to represent the 613 commandments of the Torah.

In more recent history, native son William Saroyan wrote a story about pomegranates. In the tale, the Armenian immigrant Uncle Melik plants pomegranate trees in the San Joaquin Valley because they "are practically unknown in this country." When he finally, years later, harvests 200 pomegranates, he ships them off to a wholesale produce house in Chicago.

The Chicago produce man tells Uncle Melik he can't sell them for $1 a box because nobody knows what they are.

Uncle Melik tells him he won't take less than $5 a box for precious pomegranates and pays the man to ship them back.

That's how it's been with pomegranates -- beloved by those who know them, but hardly sharing the common fame of the apples and pears of the world.

Antioxidant gold mine

Jim Simonian says as far as he knows, Simonian Farms was one of the only companies growing pomegranates on a large commercial scale until the 1980s -- and they were selling most of their fruit in Korea and Japan, not in the United States.

"Around here it was a very niche market. A wife bought one or two for a fruit bowl. It was a holiday decoration. Kind of an ethnic thing."

But in the 1980s, Los Angeles entrepreneurs Lynda and Stewart Resnick -- nicknamed the Beverly Hills Billionaires for their knack of buying things such as the Franklin Mint, Teleflora and Fiji Water and turning a profit -- started buying up farmland in the San Joaquin Valley at bargain prices.

One of the farms came with a 100-acre pomegranate grove.

The couple had heard lore of pomegranates being used as medicine by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. They paid an Israeli researcher who had discovered the antioxidant properties of red wine, to study pomegranates. He found pomegranates were higher than wine in such properties. The Resnicks paid for more research -- $25 million so far -- and now have studies suggesting pomegranates are good for everything from a radiant complexion to treating erectile dysfunction.

In 2002 they introduced POM Wonderful juice in a distinctive figure-eight bottle that's supposed to be reminiscent of two pomegranates stacked on top of each other. Lynda Resnick told Newsweek magazine in a 2006 interview that when they started their marketing blitz, they faced a major challenge: their research showed that only 12% of the public knew what a pomegranate was. She praised pomegranates to then-Disney chairman Michael Eisner, and he said, "Lynda, just draw me one. I have no idea what you are talking about."

Seed for thought

Now, the people who knew pomegranates all along are the ones who are mystified.

"Do you think it's a fad?" Jim Simonian asks out loud, apparently to himself.

He hardly acts like someone whose crop turned to gold.

He's cautious about how the pomegranate frenzy will play out. More and more people are growing pomegranates. Will there be too many? Not enough? Will oversupply drive price down? Or should Simonian Farms be planting more pomegranate trees?

The only thing for sure is that the small, semi-secret niche market is gone.

The pomegranate harvest peaks in November and any of the pomegranates on the trees have already cracked revealing glistening, ruby seeds.

"It used to be like a religion with the old Armenians not to pick a pomegranate until it had cracked. To them it wasn't ripe until it burst open. But we can't sell a pomegranate that has split open for anything," Simonian says.

Simonian, who is Armenian, remembers that his mother always had a bowl full of pomegranates in the house in the winter. He thought he'd heard that every pomegranate has the same number of seeds.

"No," says Dwayne Urbanek. He has scientific evidence refuting that theory.

For a sixth-grade science project, his son cut open pomegranate after pomegranate painstakingly counting the seeds.

"Not one of them had the same number," Urbanek tells Simonian.

It's hardly the sort of research that the Resnicks used to create pomegranate pandemonium.

Simonian and Urbanek stand in front of a loaded tree contemplating the pomegranate's new popularity. They agree that the pomegranate is a nice-looking fruit.

"They do appeal to feminine tastes " says Simonian. "A friend of mine puts them in those long, tall glass vases."

There's a pile of pomegranates where a thief was disrupted in the act and dumped the goods.

Indeed, there's been a rash of pomegranate thefts in the Valley. Thieves didn't always raid pomegranate orchards.

But, then, there wasn't always pomegranate lip gloss or pomegranate-mango body wash.

"Pomegranates have been around since the beginning of time, but now they're picking up speed. It's like a craze or something," Simonian says.

"My brother and I started growing pomegranates a long time ago, but now we're just along for the ride. Isn't that what life's about? Things get crazy and you go along for the ride."