It’s been a long, winding road to the market place for Sugar Crunch, a Pandol Bros. seedless green grape that will see a limited retail presence this summer.
But it’s better for the industry to let variety development run its obstacle course than to rush grapes to market or quickly scrap programs, said John Pandol, special projects director for Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros. Inc.
About 20 acres of Sugar Crunch are expected to be in production in late July or early August.
“It’s one that just we have,” Pandol said. “It was in the variety block languishing for many years until one day we figured out what to do with it. About two years ago, the same guys who said ‘What’s that piece of garbage?’ all of a sudden said, ‘Wow, you need to go out and plant 1,000 acres of that.’
“We didn’t know if we were smart or lucky. We were able to replicate it, so now we’re cautiously going forward.”
Taste and texture were good, but color hadn’t been meeting consumer expectations for grapes.
“It was ugly, amber and kind of splotchy brown,” Pandol said. “We did a few things differently, and the color is fine now.”
The Sugar Crunch name, he said, was suggested by a consumer. Pandol Bros. had taken 15 boxes of a 100-box harvest to a focus group and sampling at a retail store.
The grower-shipper hopes it will carve out a niche.
“At that time of season you have mostly sugraone, which is a fairly flat tasting variety,” he said. “In both sugar-to-acid ratio and mouth feel, there’s just nothing like (Sugar Crunch) at that time of year. It’s truly seedless and has decent size. Those are the characteristics that drive consumption.”
“We don’t get the chance to have lots of people experiment and play with grapes that we once did,” he said. “Sugar Crunch almost never happened. But if you do X to it, wow, it comes out.”
Both buyers and growers would do well to be more skeptical of newer grape varieties, as Pandol sees it.
“A lot of retailers have absolutely drunk the Kool-Aid and think that all of these new varieties are necessarily better and well vetted,” he said. “They’re making a mistake, because they’re not.”
“With the new variety proliferation, grape growers could find themselves where the California tree fruit industry was 10 years ago. There was white-flesh this and donut that. They spent so much time jumping from new variety to new variety that no one could recover development costs. There were 17 packing sheds for sale in Reedley.”
“The market is fickle,” Pandol said. “It wants all these new varieties, but sometimes new is not better, or better everywhere. A lot of prototype technology that hasn’t even been alpha tested, let alone beta tested, is being offered as new.”
“You can almost laugh and say there are more genetics programs than there are growers,” he said. “Not quite, but it seems like it sometimes.”
Elsewhere in the product lineup, Pandol Bros. — the biggest shipper of the Sweet Celebration variety — plans to boost volume on the red grape 30% over last year.