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Early start for Sonora grapes will assure promotable volumes for Memorial Day and Fourth of July

Virtually every year retailers can count on having Sonora spring grapes available in good supplies for the Fourth of July pull. Memorial Day, however, is generally another story. While some grapes from Mexico are usually in the market by Memorial Day, there is rarely sufficient volume for promotions in the period approaching that holiday.

This year, the earliness of the season will provide retailers with an unusual opportunity, as an anticipated early start to the Sonora grape deal, as much as two weeks ahead of normal, should assure promotable volumes for both holidays.

That should be welcome news to retailers who may have been concerned over reports that the Chilean season is coming up short and may finish earlier than expected, according to handlers who are involved in both deals.

The weather during the growing season in Sonora has been "pretty outstanding," said Allison Moore, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales, AZ, in an interview with The Produce News April 7. Days have been warmer than usual, but evenings have still been chilly, providing the necessary chilling hours for the vines.

"I am hearing that [the harvest] is actually going to be pretty early," with some shipments crossing into Nogales as early as late April, she said. There were still three weeks of April "to get through" before then, so "we'll see where we end up toward the end of the month, but what I am hearing is that there are going to be promotable volumes" in "plenty of time" for Memorial Day ads this year. "And as usual, we will have ad volumes for the Fourth of July weekend." In all, there should be “seven really great weekends" with promotable volumes of Sonora grapes, "and that is, I think, going to be for all three colors."

Having the Fourth of July fall on a Friday this year will "help drive sales at the store" and give "lots of opportunities for good promotions," she added.

Shaun Ricks, vice president of Eagle Eye Grape Guys LLC in Visalia, CA, said that he has visited the growing areas in Sonora at least once a month for the past six months. "I have been able to watch the crop push out. I think I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. What I see is early, maybe earlier than we have seen it in a long time."

Most growers think the crop size should be close to normal overall but may be a little lighter than normal on the front end and a bit heavier than usual on the back end, Ricks said. "When it is all said and done, I think it is going to be a good deal. I think May is going to be very strong in pricing, quality and volume. In June, I think there will be heavier volumes and better opportunities to promote."

"We are going to be early. We are going to have promotable volumes for Memorial Day and Fourth of July. Crop size and quality look ideal," said Louie Galvan, a partner in Fruit Royale in Delano, CA, April 1. "We are excited about getting the advantage of another holiday to toss in the mix. Where last year, we didn't get our first fruit off the vine until May 15, this year it will give us another 10 or maybe 15 days to sell the product." He said he expects good quality and good volume "all the way through the month of June" and possibly through the first week of July.

The Arvin district in the southern San Joaquin Valley of California, which typically follows the Sonora grape deal, also appeared to be early, Galvan noted. "Normally, when we are early, it gives us an advantage. It gives us more time to sell the product."

Jared Lane, vice president of sales and marketing for Los Angeles-based Stevco Inc. said that the grape crop in Mexico appears to be a normal-sized crop, with good opportunities for Memorial Day promotions because of the extreme earliness of the season.

That earliness could also bring an earlier end to the deal, Lane said. "We should finish Flames around the 15th of June, which might cause a bit of a shortage going into the Arvin district."

"An early season bodes well for everybody," said Atomic Torosian, a partner in Crown Jewels Produce LLC in Fresno, CA, April 1. "We will be able to set a few Memorial Day ads and obviously Fourth of July ads. Overall, the crop looks good right now. The clusters look good and the quality looks really good," but "we are dealing with a little bit lighter" crop of Sugraones.

"I think retailers are ready to switch out of the Chilean grape deal," Torosian added. "I don't see the overlap as much as we had last year."

The earliness of the grape season in Sonora and in Arvin as well is only partly due to weather, according to John Pandol, a director at Pandol Bros. in Delano, CA. "Part of it is technique."

He expressed hope that those who are pushing for the earliest start dates "pick them with the same discipline that everyone else does and they don't ruin the whole deal for everybody." In the excitement to get going early, "one hopes for prudence and discipline and harvesting according to the refractometer and not the calendar."

That said, "everything is early," Pandol continued. Not only in Mexico, but "all crops we are seeing in the San Joaquin Valley are tracking two weeks ahead of time."

He expected to see Chilean grapes this year clean up "sometime during May," in contrast to the "very late arrivals" in 2013. "We don't expect to see a lot of Chilean Crimsons in the market well into June, which is what we saw last year," he said.

Grape growers in the Sonora Desert are "much less concerned about the front end" of the season than they are the back end and the transition into the San Joaquin Valley, Pandol said. If the San Joaquin Valley grapes come into play too soon and there is too much of an overlap with the late Sonora deal, "it is very difficult for the desert grapes to compete, and they will basically have to resort to their domestic market earlier than they would normally plan."