FRESNO, Calif. — California should see a record grape crop of 106.9 million 19-pound box equivalents — up from 100.2 million in 2012 — if an estimate by the California Table Grape Commission holds up.
That projection could edge downward by July 25, when the commission makes its final estimate.
But record or not, grower-shippers braced for a relentless pace early in the deal when the San Joaquin Valley started about 10 days earlier than typical in most places — including June 24 in Arvin. Meanwhile, Mexico and the Coachella Valley peaked after starting about a week late.
“Mild winter and spring weather just brought the bloom on sooner,” said Jim Llano, account sales manager at Delano-based Castle Rock Vineyards.
“When we start getting blasted with 100 degrees in May, those plants say, ‘It’s time to go.’ And they’re taking off,” said David Stone, owner at Visalia-based Valhalla Sales & Marketing Inc.
Overlap creates options
For buyers, that meant more sourcing options than they might have been used to.
“We’ll be packing flames and sugraones in Mexico until July 7,” Atomic Torosian, managing partner at Fresno-based Crown Jewels Produce, said June 12.
“There’s more of an overlap this year. There are people who are going to want to switch to the San Joaquin Valley once we start here,” Torosian said. “But we have to make sure we keep movement going in both places.”
“Unfortunately, when the valley starts, buyers tend to abandon the desert immediately,” said John Pandol, special projects director for Delano-based Pandol Bros. Inc.
“They fail to appreciate that just because one variety started, it doesn’t mean all varieties start simultaneously.”
Growers see early starts
Castle Rock Vineyards planned to mirror its Coachella rollout of varieties in Arvin, Llano said.
It planned to start with flames, followed a week or so later by sugraones and summer royals.
“Eventually we’ll get into the scarlet royals in Arvin as well,” he said.
“Even the black grapes are very early,” Torosian said. “We have summer royals that will start out of the San Joaquin Valley around June 28 out of Reedley.”
Among its reds, Crown Jewels’ flames were to start as early as June 17.
As Coachella started in May, growers there and in Mexico were hurt by late-arriving crimsons from Chile, said Steve Root, president and chief executive officer of Coachella-based East West Unlimited LLC.
“It’s going to be a train wreck,” Root said June 4. “Mexico is picking 270,000-300,000 flames per day. They have 18-20 million boxes (of grapes), and they’re just getting going. They’re not halfway done with their flames.”
“It will bottleneck until after Arvin, because Mexico will just be starting their Superiors and sugraones,” he said.
“They’ve got 4.5 million sugraones in Mexico, so they’ll be peaking in the first week of July. We’ll have quite a few here, too. Our late deal is a lot bigger than our early deal.”
“We have pretty much condensed the desert deal marketing period into a smaller time,” said George Matoian, sales and marketing director for Kingsburg-based Visalia Produce Sales Inc.
Pete Giotta, salesman at Tulare-based Sundale Vineyards, said he hoped grapes would pick up Fourth of July promotions comparable to watermelon or corn.
“Usually it’s a tough time for us to promote,” he said. “This year there should be plenty of grapes.”
Mexico shipments down
Shipments out of Mexico totaled about 5.7 million boxes through the first week of June, down from 7.4 million the year before, Torosian said.
Coachella had picked and packed 1.5 million, down from just over 2 million.
“The crop is a little lighter out of Coachella and Mexico than they thought,” Torosian said. “We’re behind in both locations, but prices are not as strong as they were last year at this time.
“I start to see more ads building. More of the retailers are pushing hard to run aggressive ads, which is good.”
Jeff Olsen, vice president at Visalia-based The Chuck Olsen Co., said price drops favored promotions, even beyond the Fourth of July.
“When they were in the mid- to high-$20s, it wasn’t a real promotable item,” he said. “Now they have promotable prices and that’s obviously helping Mexico on the reds, for one, and Coachella.”
“The biggest contributor to moving fruit is having some reasonably priced ads,” Olsen said.
Bulk after Labor Day
As big as volumes will be at the start of San Joaquin Valley production thanks to overlap with other deals, California is unlikely to ship the bulk of its crop until after Labor Day. Last year, about 61 million boxes moved from September onward.
That has more to do with the end of regional deals and roadside stands than with moms putting grapes in their school-bound kids’ lunchboxes, Pandol said.
“The emphasis has been on developing the late season from Labor Day to Thanksgiving,” he said.
“We’ll start July 1, probably finish picking about mid-November and ship through Christmas,” Giotta said.
Last year was the first time California surpassed 100 million boxes, said Kathleen Nave, commission president.
“We were expecting to do that for the last three years but just didn’t get it all in the box,” she said. “The crop is expected to grow for three or four more years based on planting density and other factors.”