Sugraones gain, but thompsons still viable for many

05/01/2009 12:57:16 PM
Andy Nelson

Some Coachella Valley grape growers have said adios to an old friend, the thompson variety. Others, however, say it still has a vital role to play.

With a nod to the future, Coachella, Calif.-based Peter Rabbit Farms did not grow thompsons this year, said John Burton, sales manager.

In its place? Industry darling sugraones.

“The sugraones will have more acreage coming off this year, and more next year,” Burton said. “The thompsons were older vines that had their best years behind them.”

The end of the thompson for Peter Rabbit marks the culmination of a four- or five-year process for the company, Burton said. Sugraones not only are in high demand, he said. They also yield better.

Sugraone volumes will be up and thompson, perlette and possibly flame volumes down this year, said Rick Paul, table grape product manager for Coachella-based Sun World International LLC.

“If the projections are correct, there should be a fairly significant increase in sugraones — 700,000 boxes of sugraones just for us,” he said. “Once you figure out the nuances of growing it, it’s a grower-friendly variety, and it has good retail and consumer acceptance.”

Not everyone is down on thompsons, however. Drake Larson Sales, Thermal, Calif., plans to sell more thompsons this year than it has in the past, said Drake Larson, partner.

“We acquired quite a bit more thompson acreage,” he said. “We think it will be a nice little niche market for us this year.”

By season’s end, Drake Larson Sales will have sold an additional 40,000 packages of thompsons, Larson predicted.

Larson doesn’t deny that the sugraone gains in popularity with growers and consumers every season. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for an old reliable like the thompson, he said.

“The sugraone has become the big boy on the block, but I think there are still certain customers who want the old-fashioned varieties,” he said. “The thompson has unique characteristics. It has wonderful flavor and a very delicate skin.”

Drake Larson Sales plans to market thompsons from about June 10 to July 4, Larson said. It will be important, he said, for marketers to manage their thompson displays with care.

“You can’t overstock them because they don’t have the shelf life of sugraones,” he said. “It’s like selling raspberries next to strawberries.”

The thompson isn’t the only older variety Drake Larson Sales has more faith in than some other Coachella growers do.

“A lot of people have discontinued perlettes, but we still have a good mix for flames,” he said.

Some valley growers had trouble growing perlettes with enough flavor, Larson said. Drake Larson Sales hasn’t had that problem, he said.

“We have a reputation for flavor,” he said.

Perlettes, like thompsons, will require careful attention on the part of retailers this season, Larson said. Maintaining shelf life and staying out of the way of sugraones are paramount, he said.

“You have to get them to the retailers fast, so they’re fresh, and you have to market them in such a way that they don’t bump into the sugraones too hard,” Larson said.

Peter Rabbit Farms has scaled back perlette acreage in past years, but this year the company is content with its current level of production, Burton said.

Because of its timing and quality, the early-season variety still has its place in the Coachella deal, he said.

“Perlettes are down as low as they’ll go,” Burton said. “I like that it comes off early. The early perlette is a very good grape.”

Volumes of perlettes, along with thompsons, will actually be up this year for Coachella-based Desert Fresh Inc., said Tony Bianco, president.

Sun World, however, won’t be marketing any perlettes this season, Paul said.

East West Unlimited, Coachella, is bullish on its black varieties this season, said Steve Root, president and chief executive officer.

“Blacks are becoming a bigger mover with the new varieties,” he said. “They’re very solid, good sugar. They eat very well and have long shelf life. There’s less shrink for chains.”

More ads and promotions will help move the newer blacks this year, Root



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