Want in on a little secret?
The best watermelons in California come from the fields around Manteca, Ripon, and Tracy.
It’s the same reason why San Joaquin County is the largest wine grape producing county in California — and by extension the United States.
Reason No. 1: The sandy loam soil.
Watermelons, like grapes, are fruits. Well-drained soil allows them to reach sweet levels.
Reason No. 2: The heat.
The heat — when combined with water — spurs the robust growth of fruit.
Reason No. 3: The cooling Delta breezes.
Fruit doesn’t get juicy by soil, heat, and water alone. The cooling overnight breezes — virtually an every night occurrence — helps increase the sugar.
The numbers clearly underscore why the fields around Manteca and Ripon are so sweet for watermelons.
In 2020 the Central Valley yielded 366.1 million pounds of watermelon. Of those, 167 million pounds were from San Joaquin County. That’s almost half of the crop.
San Joaquin County, on its own, topped the Imperial Valley at 23.9 million pounds and the Southern California region at 13.8 million pounds.
Manteca-Ripon is home to the two most well-known purveyors of watermelons: Perry & Sons as well as Van Groningen & Sons that broker under the moniker Yosemite Fresh.
To be honest, not every watermelon grown here is going to be the juiciest and sweetest.
But that said you are going to hit the sweet spot a high percentage of the time.
For the better part of the 31 years I’ve lived in Manteca, I’ve developed a fondness for watermelons.
Credit that to the late George Perry and his son Art.
Before I could take or leave watermelons. And almost always because they seemed always to be on the dry side, I had to use salt.
It was a habit I picked up from my parents. But by the end of summer, I never consumed more than an equivalent of one watermelon.
That changed after a few years in Manteca and buying watermelons locally produced.
I found myself going through five or so watermelons a summer sans salt.
But once in a while — after being ruined by the best Manteca could grow — I’d buy a watermelon that was not just a bit less stellar but was borderline yuck.
It was explained to me that watermelons grown in Mexico, Arizona, or even other areas farther south in California tend to miss the high mark more often than not because they come up short on one critical component.
That component — the predictable cooling Delta breezes that takes the sting out of 90 to 100 degrees plus highs — was missing. It’s not that temperatures don’t cool down at night elsewhere, it’s just that they aren’t anywhere as near as persistent as the Delta breezes that funnel into the valley from the San Francisco Bay.
I realize I may sound a bit a watermelon snob — I guess if there are wine snobs then being a watermelon snob isn’t much of a stretch — but I avoid watermelons that roll into California from Mexico and Arizona.
That means I wait until around mid-May to partake. And while California grown definitely is a buy sign for me, I look for one of two labels — Perry & Sons or Van Groningen & Sons.
In a good year, I now go through eight watermelons a year.
I buy them when it’s hot. I cut them into quarters. I eat them after working out. I start on Monday and finish on a Thursday.
On the days I choose to run in the heat, there is nothing more decadent than ending a run with hands on knees and dripping sweat non-stop for three minutes.
Once the drip dry session ends, I pull out a watermelon quarter and rehydrate. The sweet juiciness is made all the better by the refreshing taste of a refrigerator chilled watermelon.
And it’s made all the sweeter knowing it is grown almost literally in our own backyard.