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California grape marketers believe outstanding quality will help move crop

Last year, the California table grape industry shipped a record volume of fruit at generally very good prices — a phenomenon growers, shippers and marketers attribute largely to the excellent quality of the grapes.

As of mid-July, the 2013 season was shaping up to be very much a repeat of the prior year, with once again a potential record volume of high-quality fruit moving briskly at good prices. Some said they saw even better quality than last year.

020-CalGrapes-Crop-Autumn-KA newer variety that has been extensively planted, Autumn King is one of several varieties that have increased the abundance and diversity of the California grape industry’s late season offerings. (Photo courtesy of Sundale Sales Inc.)An earlier start to the harvest, by as much as 10 to 14 days in some cases, was helping to extend the marketing season and spread the large volume over more weeks.

Earlier concerns about a possible “train wreck” caused by late-running spring grape deals in Mexico and the California desert colliding with the early start in the San Joaquin Valley proved unfounded, as the transition went much more smoothly than anticipated.

Weather, always the caveat, had so far been kind to the crop, from all appearances. An extended period of extreme heat stretching from late June into mid-July appeared to be having little adverse effect on yields or quality, a happy situation which growers attributed to good cultural practices, the development of good canopies (except in some younger vineyards) and the gradual onset of the hot spells giving vines time to adapt, rather than sharp spikes, which are harder on the plants.

An initial industry estimate for the overall 2013 California crop made in April by the California Table Grape Commission was 106.9 million boxes (19-pound equivalents). “It is very common for the estimate to change between April and July,” said CTFA President Kathleen Nave. “A lot can happen.” She declined to make any comment in advance of that meeting on how a revised estimate might be trending. “I really don’t know, because people think different things,” she said. “I will not know until they are all in a room together and we get some kind of consensus.”

However, several growers and shippers indicated to The Produce News that they expected the initial estimate to be revised downward slightly, with a potential record still likely but edging out rather than shattering last year’s record.

That said, the estimating committee had another two weeks to observe their vineyards before making its final estimate.

“We had a very nice spring, as far as weather is concerned, nice growing conditions, which has translated into really nice quality,” said Pete Hronis, vice president of sales and marketing, at Hronis Inc. in Delano, CA. “The heat so far has not caused problems that we have noticed as of this date.”

Quality of the crop is “much improved” over last year, according to Louie Galvan, a partner in Fruit Royale Inc. in Delano, CA.

“The bunch sizes are bigger and more well-formed,” he said. “Sizing is more consistent throughout the vine, where last year it was a little more mixed. Bunch counts are above normal. So far, it looks like a banner year” for yields, quality and condition.

Hot weather “is definitely shortening our [work] days,” Galvan said. But “it hasn’t really had a major impact” other than “maybe slowing us down a little bit on the colored varieties” and putting “a little color” on some of the green varieties where a vineyard canopy may have allowed some sunlight to shine through and reach the bunches. “Those won’t get packed anyway,” he added.

“Overall quality so far looks very good, very clean, [with] nice even size,” said Jeff Olsen of The Chuck Olsen Co. in Visalia, CA. “Even with the hot weather we have experienced, we haven’t had any major problems.” So far, “everything seems to have come through it fine.”

Last year’s record crop also generated record FOB prices, Olsen said. “What contributed to that was quality, and this year, we’ve got the same type of quality.” As long as retailers are promoting grapes, “I think we will have as good a year, or close to it, as we did last year. That makes everyone’s life more enjoyable.”

Having just transitioned from the desert into the San Joaquin Valley, John Harley, vice president of sales and marketing at Anthony Vineyards Inc. in Bakersfield, CA, said that so far, it looks to be a good crop. “Quality looks outstanding,” he said. “Barring any issues weather-wise, I think this will again be one of the better years as far as quality is concerned.”

Berry size was running “a half to a full size bigger than last year” and “there is a fairly good sized crop hanging out there,” he said. There was “a little bit of a hot spell that slowed production down a bit, but other than that, quality hasn’t been deterred.” There has been “enough growth” on the vines that there has been little sunburn, and “no heat damage that we can tell at this stage.”

“The crop looks very good,” said Shaun Ricks, vice president of Eagle Eye Grape Guys LLC in Visalia, CA. While he noted that sounds a bit “cliché” because a grower will rarely say his crop looks horrible, Ricks added, “I think it is really true this year. We see very good size. The fruit is making color and getting sugar in good order. We feel like the fruit is very solid” and will have “good legs” for traveling or storing.

“I think the industry is going to pack more grapes this year than we have ever packed, so it is maybe more critical that we have a really good quality and good condition grape, and I think we have that,” he said. “I feel like we are blessed with a really good piece of fruit to ship this year,” which will reduce shrink at retail and generate repeat sales. “I think the retailers will see really good success with grapes this year” because of the quality.

“We did come through a tremendous heat spell,” Ricks said. “But we knew well in advance, and we got the vineyards ready for it, and I think we came through it quite well.”

There could be some damage to Red Globes, which “typically have a little less canopy,” but “all the seedless varieties came through really well. We are not seeing any damage at all,” he said. “Of course, we are always watching.”

“Coming off of such a strong year last year, there is a lot of excitement in terms of the quality of the product being offered to the consumer,” said John O’Rourke, president of RJO Produce Marketing in Fresno, CA. “It is just outstanding.”

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