Importers of Chilean grapes expect sluggish late 2011 markets to strengthen in 2012.

Mark Greenberg, senior vice president of procurement and chief operating officer of Fisher Capespan, St. Laurent, Quebec, expects steady demand once Chile has the U.S. grape deal to itself, but the beginning of the season was volatile.

The market was sluggish and unsettled at the end of 2011, Greenberg said, but was starting to turn around in early January.

“Movement has been picking up since the New Year,” he said Jan. 10.

The problem in December, Greenberg said, was an overabundance of fruit from several growing regions. California was expected to ship storage reds through the second week of January, and product was also coming in from Brazil and other South American growing areas.

It’s difficult, Greenberg said, for early product from Chile to compete, price-wise, with end-of-the-season California fruit.

“In the $18-per-box range, California makes an attractive product because Chile is well in excess of that,” he said.

“We expect to see at least the low 30s (for Chilean grapes in December). From the reports we’ve heard, movement is slow at that level.”

Greenberg speculated that Americans may be spending their money more carefully this year, and are less willing to splurge on more expensive early-season Chilean grapes.

“The early Chilean product has been harder to move than anyone expected,” he said.

Demand for Chilean red varieties in particular, Greenberg said, will likely be tepid until the New Year.

Because of a freeze during the Chilean winter, product wasn’t expected to arrive as soon as it did, said Josh Leichter, East Coast vice president and grape category director with the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppenheimer Group.

As a result, and combined with California still shipping significant volumes in December, retailers weren’t prepared to promote Chilean product in December, Leichter said.

That kept movement and demand down, he said. But by January, things were starting to turn.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest so far in January, and movement is picking up,” Leichter said Jan. 6.

Prices were starting to come down in early January as more Chilean product entered the market, but Leichter expected them to stabilize by mid- to late January.

Francisco Chacon, marketing director for Santiago-based Dole Chile SA, also reported sluggish demand at the beginning of the Chilean grape deal in the U.S.

“The market for first arrivals has been weaker than expected,” Chacon said.

“It looks like California stocks are having some effect on Chilean demand.”  

Chilean grape exports in 2011-12 should break the previous record of 416,000 tons set last season, said Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America with the Sonoma, Calif.-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.

That’s nothing new: The Chilean industry has managed to top itself every year for the past several.

With plenty of product still coming in from Argentina and Brazil in mid-December, not to mention late-season storage fruit from California, there is no lack of grapes available for U.S. consumers this winter.

Despite that abundance of product, prices should hold steady throughout the Chilean deal, Tjerandsen said. Call it the fruits of a long education process.

“The industry has finally learned that if you have six shipments each day on both coasts, it’s going to impact the price,” Tjerandsen said.

“They’re doing a much better job of staging shipments to match demand. There’s been a recognition of the need to stage to ensure reasonable pricing.”

Another curb on oversupply, and subsequent buoy for prices, for the Chilean grape industry has been stringent standards for quality and size. If a customer expects a certain brix level and size, Tjerandsen said, he can be pretty sure of getting it, even from thousands of miles away.

“It’s not like they’re ordering 56s and getting 88s,” he said.

“The Chilean grape industry is kind of the poster child for enforcing vigilant quality for export.”