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With a potential record crop on the vines, San Joaquin Valley looks at early start

There is often a bit of overlap between the end of the spring grape deals out of Sonora, Mexico, and Southern California's Coachella Valley and the start of the summer grape harvest in Central California's San Joaquin Valley. Sometimes the overlap is slight; sometimes there is virtually none at all, or even a gap. But occasionally the overlap can be substantial, with all districts shipping significant volume simultaneously 14-EarlySJV-Crop-FlamesFlame seedless grapes in a vineyard in the southern San Joaquin Valley. (Photo by Rand Green)for durations of a week or more. The 2013 season appears likely to be one of those years.

The desert deals — Sonora and Coachella — are said to be running late this year. Mexico, in particular, has strong late-season volume. At the same time, the early vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley are expected to have good volume as well, with start dates ranging from about normal to as much as two weeks earlier than normal. At least one company anticipates its earliest start date ever.

Many years, the San Joaquin Valley is not a factor in the Fourth of July pull. This year, however, many growers anticipate starting harvest of their earliest vineyards in such districts as Arvin and Maricopa before the end of June, enabling them to tap into the market demand for the Fourth of July weekend at least in nearby western markets.

According to Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission in Fresno, CA, while some "outliers" may start exceptionally early, overall the San Joaquin Valley looks to have close to normal timing. It is, however, earlier than the last few years.

"We are going to have quite a few people going the week of June 24, I would expect at this point," she said. At the same time, "there will be plenty of grapes from Coachella." Of importance to buyers is the assurance that between the late desert grapes and the early San Joaquin Valley grapes, "there will be promotable grapes in the marketplace for the Fourth of July holiday."

Customers can expect promotable supplies of fresh California grapes throughout the summer and fall, and into early winter, as the industry is anticipating a large crop, and — weather permitting, as always — very possibly a record crop for the second year in a row.

"We do a preliminary crop estimate the end of April. Then we estimate again in July," Nave said. This year the July estimate is scheduled for release July 25.

The April preliminary estimate this year is 106.9 million 19-pound boxes. If realized, that will top last year's record volume of about 101 million boxes.

More than half of that volume will be harvested and shipped after Sept. 1.

Last year's record harvest was "a much-anticipated record," Nave said. "We had been anticipating that size of a crop for a number of years," given the producing acreage and the initial sets on the vines. But "for some reason we weren't getting it all in the box. So we were very happy to cross that 100-million-box mark, finally," last year. With demand for California grapes continuing to climb, "looking ahead we figure we are just going to move on up from there," she said.

As of early June, the preliminary estimate made in April appeared to be on track, but "we will know more by the end of July," Nave said. "It is not at all uncommon for the estimate to change between April and July."

"It is looking like a very fruitful year," said Anthony Stetson, sales manager at Columbine Vineyards in Delano, CA. There is a lot of fruit on the vine, he observed. "WE are looking forward to a good season.

"It looks like it could be" another record crop, noted John Harley, vice president of sales and marketing at Anthony Vineyards Inc. in Bakersfield, CA. But "I think one of the biggest differences" of the 2013 crop over the prior year, "is that the quality overall, and especially ... early on in the San Joaquin, is better" than in 2012, with bigger berry size and bigger bunch size. Growing weather so far has been perfect, he said. "Hopefully that stays the same going forward."

"I think our growing conditions" during the spring period this year "were just absolutely perfect," said Jeff Olsen, vice president of The Chuck Olsen Co. in Visalia, CA. "It is a large crop" and, for The Chuck Olsen Co., earlier than normal and seven to 10 days earlier than last year.

The California grape industry anticipates "another record crop," said John Pandol, a director at Pandol Bros. Inc. in Delano. "Public and private estimates have it between 104 million and 108 million [boxes]," up from a little over 101 million boxes last year. With that kind of volume, not only will there be promotional opportunities from the outset, but "we will be on the offense till Thanksgiving."

There have been some cutbacks in acreage, however, he said. "We are seeing evidence that because of water shortages in California, there are some vineyards that are being diverted for to other usage." The reduction "probably won't be a big factor," however, he continued. "Could it amount to 1 percent? Possibly."

While there is a dazzling array of table grape varieties, including many fairly new ones, that will be offered by San Joaquin Valley grape growers over the course of the seasons, most of those will come during the late summer and fall period. For the early season, Flames dominate the red grape category, Sugraones the green seedless category and Summer Royals the black seedless category, although several other varieties will start to kick in by late July.