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Strong marketing opportunities for Coachella Valley grapes

Because of supply issues with some Chilean grapes this year, promotions were scarce, which should bode well for California's 10-week Coachella Valley deal.

At least that is the view of Andy Economou, general manager of Unifrutti of America and a longtime player in both the Chilean and California grape deals. He told The Produce News that Chile had some "miserable weather in all production regions except the north. So after we finished up with the northern grapes, we had big challenges on conditions all year."

Consequently that led retailers to be a bit hesitant on promotions. "They didn't promote, which meant that grapes were being sold for $2.99 a pound all season,” he said. “One guy dropped to $1.99 for a while and there was another promotion at $1.49, but mostly the price was $2.99. This was a very unusual year."

He reasoned that retailers and consumers are chomping at the bit to see some grape promotions. "Buyers can't wait until the Coachella Valley and Mexican deals get started,” he said. “Prices will start out high but we are going to look for promotions once the volume starts."

Coachella Valley is always a fast deal as its short duration means volume ramps up quickly. The earliest grapes will probably come out of the valley during the week of May 6, with most shippers getting underway the following week and good volume predicted by the week of May 20.

Tony Bianco, president of Desert Fresh in Coachella, CA, said he is also expecting a fast start for the Coachella Valley deal for the same reason that Mr. Economou cited. "Retailers have told me they can't wait for the Chilean deal to end," he said. "That was a tough deal and they are looking forward to the start of our season. The green grapes from Chile have fallen far short of expectations so I expect the market on greens to start out very good."

Though an ugly crop is like an ugly child -- no one has one - the praise for this year's Coachella grape crop seems genuine. "I'll tell you the same thing I read about the Mexican grape crop two weeks ago," said George Tudor, vice president of Tudor Ranch, Mecca, CA, "it looks great. Isn't that what everyone says?"

But he then backed up the opinion with some facts: "We've had no dips in temperature the last two weeks and no real wind to speak of except a little last week. The growing conditions have been ideal, which should produce a very good crop."

Mr. Tudor said timing appears to be about average with the crop looking to just be a little bit light.

A couple of trends that have emerged include the continued increase in production of Scarlet Royals. Coachella Valley growers produced about 110,000 boxes of the variety in 2012 with more than that expected this year. Mr. Tudor said most growers in the valley have put in some Scarlet Royals over the last four or five years, with some of those early acres just moving into full production this year. "Production should increase for at least the next four or five years," he said.

Another industry-wide trend is the adoption of what is being called the pouch or gusset bag, which has a handle. It is designed to replace the zipper bag and clamshells. "It displays better at retail," said Mr. Economou. "The film is very clear. It is like looking through glass."

However, one shipper who asked not to be identified with his remarks said his firm is moving slowly on the pouch bag. He said it is expensive and retailers seem to be asking for different options. "One wants high graphics and another wants no graphics. Everyone has a little different idea as to how it should look and we don't want to carry a lot of different options because the inventory will get expensive."

But virtually everyone who was contacted did say they will offer that option this year. One shipper said it would be great if it replaces both the clamshell and the zipper bag in future years. Another said packing in the zipper bag has become very easier in the shed and if this bags proves to be just as efficient that will be a very good thing. However, initially it is to be expected that the packers won't be quite as fast as they are with the consumer packs they are most familiar with. It does display well at retail, according to most shippers, but what they see as its main attribute is that the buyers want it. And if the buyer wants it, shippers will give it to them.