New grape varieties offer flavor, eye appeal

06/18/2010 11:10:48 AM
Tom Burfield

Some of California’s most venerable table grape varieties are fading into history, only to be replaced by varieties that grower-shippers say will be bigger, more flavorful and ship better than their predecessors.

“It’s an interesting time in table grapes in California because there a lot of new options coming into the marketplace,” said Chris Caratan, vice president at Columbine Vineyards, Delano, Calif.

Growers are seeing “a proliferation of new varieties” today proffered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private breeders, he said.

Some will be harvested for the first time this year, so it’s too early to say whether they’ll become consumer favorites, and others won’t become available until next year or later.

Another trend many grower-shippers note is a decline in shipments of the thompson seedless variety.

The thompson still is the preeminent green grape that Delano-based Pandol Bros. Inc. produces, said Tristan Kieva, director of business development and marketing. But its volume is on the decline, while sugraone, princess and autumn king are up-and-comers.

“We’re seeing a shift in variety preference,” she said.

Thompsons no longer have the characteristics retailers want, said Atomic Torosian, partner in Fresno, Calif.-based Crown Jewels Marketing & Distribution LLC.

They don’t hold as well or size up like the newer varieties, he said, and are expensive to grow. The company is almost completely out of the thompson deal, except for a few grown in Kern County, he said.

Seedless varieties with good eye appeal continue to gain popularity over seeded ones, but growers also are looking for flavor and eatability, said Jim Llano, sales manager for Castle Rock Vineyards, Delano.

A key to the success of the table grape industry is the ability of growers to provide “superb eating experience that draws consumers back for the repeat purchase,” Llano said.

Some growers do that by offering their own proprietary varieties.

Llano says he’s partial to the proprietary Castle Rock red because it offers attractive bunch and berry size, good color and a unique flavor profile.

Even nonproprietary grapes can develop strong followings.

Columbine Vineyards offered the autumn king last year for the first time, Caratan said.

It was well received by customers, and the company hopes to repeat its success with a bigger crop this year, he said.

Columbine Vineyards also plans to increase production of the popular holiday variety and will grow a small crop of scarlet royals for the first time.


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