California’s San Joaquin Valley grape deal should start almost two weeks ahead of last year, with a bigger crop on most varieties and some shipments hitting stores before July Fourth.

“We are two to three days ahead of normal,” said George Matoian, salesman for Kingsburg, Calif.-based Visalia Produce Sales. “The last two years we were late 10 to 14 days. It’s almost like Christmas shopping days — two weeks more to feature our grapes.”

The Fresno-based California Table Grape Commission projects 4.5 million more 19-pound boxes will be produced this year than last. Its early statewide estimate forecasts 101.6 million boxes, up from 97.1 million. A mostly sunny spring had a lot to do with that.

“We don’t have the quality issues with mildew like we did last year,” said Atomic Torosian, managing partner for Fresno-based Crown Jewels Produce. “It’s a much cleaner, bigger crop. That will present a lot of possibilities for ad promotions from the start of the season until the very end. The stone fruit we normally compete with is down in production this year.”

“It starts in the last week of June with three or four shippers on plain seedless grapes out of Arvin or Delano,” Torosian said. “Western Fresno County will start around July 1 on flames. The early black seedless grapes, summer royals, should start up July 10.”

Supply is also getting some help from the Coachella Valley and Mexico.

“There shouldn’t be any gap,” Rick Paul, table grapes category director at Sun World International LLC, Bakersfield, Calif., said June 12. “Last year Mexico and Coachella cleaned up early and San Joaquin started late. Now both Mexico and Coachella will harvest right up to the end of June and possibly into the first couple days of July. Mexico is about 60% harvested.”

Paul anticipates good quality on San Joaquin flames. Sun World’s sugraones, a green seedless, start around July 7. “Our black seedless, Midnight Beauty, will start about a week after sugraones and it has a full crop,” he said. “We’re off a little bit on our sugraones but still have promotional volume.”

Sun World production staff forecasts 1.8 million boxes of sugraones; normal is 2.1 million. The reasons aren’t clear, but there have been issues even before the action shifts to the San Joaquin Valley.

“We’re a little concerned about how the crop comes off in Coachella,” Paul said. “For the second year in a row, especially on sugraones, sugar and maturity have been a real problem. It’s kept the harvest at a reasonable level. There are no large inventories. But with no gap we’re pushing more and more volume into a shorter window before Arvin starts. The benefit is we’ll have plenty of grapes to support Fourth of July ad business.”

Coachella production began in early May and is expected to run to mid-July, according to the commission.

Reds also had problems in Coachella, Matoian said.

“The crop on the flame seedless is less than Coachella expected,” he said. “It had low color, splits and cracks in the fruit. There won’t be much carryover from that district. Size and color will be suspect. Last year we had 10 to 14 days of an empty pipeline when we started in San Joaquin. We’ll see some gap in the fourth week of June but not as bad as last year.”

Buyers have made it possible for grower-shippers to move a lot of grapes, Matoian said.

“All the retailers have been very active when the price got to a level they could promote,” he said. “Grapes were a solid feature with reduced amounts of California tree fruits to promote. We had a lot of chain stores promoting at or near cost. Each had its reasons.”

Flame seedless grapes were priced about $20 for 18-pound containers out of Coachella Valley on June 11, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Year-ago prices were about $16 to $18.