Established grape varieties still dominate sales worldwide, but newcomers are pushing the business in new directions, as well as elbowing some older varieties aside.
Change is coming at an almost dizzying pace, shippers say.
Bakersfield, Calif.-based International Fruit Genetics has six new Price Look-Up numbers for 24 varieties of table grapes, including 10 that IFG classifies as “novelty” varieties, such as the Cotton Candy.
In May, the Produce Marketing Association and International Federation for Produce Standards assigned the new PLUs to 24 IFG varieties, all of which are seedless.
The novelty varieties recently assigned PLUs were reds Sweet Nectar, Sweet Maybelle, Candy Hearts, Candy Snaps and Candy Drops; green Cotton Candy; and black Sweet Sapphire, Funny Fingers, Candy Crunch and Candy Dreams.
IFG’s new “core” varieties include red Sweet Celebration, Sweet Romance and Jack’s Salute; green Sweet Sunshine, Sweet Globe and Sugar Crisp; and black Sweet Surrender, Sweet Enchantment, Sweet Secrets, Sweet Surprise, Sweet Flavors, Sweet Joy, Sweet Magic and Sweet Bond.
The novelty varieties, in particular, have the potential to push the California grape industry into a new and potentially profitable direction, growers and shippers say.
“What creates the novelty is the taste of those varieties,” said John Harley, sales manager with Bakersfield-based Anthony Vineyards. “They’re different from, say, scarlet royal or any other traditionally grown, or even organically grown, grape. They have a totally different taste profile that is unusual or different.”
Even the core newcomers are making their presence felt as replacements for established traditional varieties. Harley cited Sweet Celebration, for example, replacing a crimson or scarlet royal.
There are two sides to the arrival of new varieties, said Justin Bedwell, president of Madera, Calif.-based grower-shipper Bari Produce LLC.
“If all these new varieties are having new appeal, that can be a little chaotic, but they’re definitely great,” he said.
Bedwell wondered if there may come a time in which there might be too many varieties.
“You worry that if you get too many options for everybody, it might make decisions a little harder in what they’re looking for at the store level,” he said.
Last year, according to the Fresno-based California Table Grape Commission, the top 10 varieties in the U.S. were scarlet royal, autumn king, flame seedless, sugraone, blanc seedless, autumn royal, red globe, crimson seedless, Sheegene-20 (trademarked as Allison) and princess.
The next five were Sweet Celebration, Sugranineteen (Scarlotta Seedless), Sheegene-13 (Timco), Sheegene-17 (Great Green, Great White, Green Emerald Seedless and Green Envy) and C51-63 (Vintage Red).
In 2017, the commission said, 49% of California’s 109.1 million box units were red grapes; 40%, green; and 10%, black. The rest were bicolor, experimental, and mixed varieties.
Last year, 95% of California’s table grape volume were seedless varieties; 4%, seeded, and 1%, unidentified.
“A lot of (retailers) are just looking for any new varieties out there,” said Keith Andrew, sales manager with Delano, Calif.-based Columbine Orchards.
Delano, Calif.-based Sunview Vineyards of California Inc., which has its own breeding program, is introducing Sorella Bella green seedless and Sparkle red seedless this year, said Mitch Wetzel, vice president of sales.
“It takes several years to develop a new variety and only after exhaustive testing and trials do we introduce one,” he said.
Bakersfield-based Top Brass Marketing Inc. is adding Jack’s Salute and Sweet Sapphire to its product roster this season, said Brett Dixon, president.
“Consumers are looking for quality and a great eating experience with their fresh grapes,” he said.
New varieties create new customers, said Louie Galvan, managing partner at Delano-based Fruit Royale Inc.
“If anything, they’re causing more demand,” he said.
Keith Wilson, owner of Dinuba, Calif.-based King Fresh Produce LLC, said flavor isn’t the only asset new varieties offer.
“Berry size is also an attractive trait of these new varieties,” he said. “Extra-large and jumbo-sized fruit is always appealing to consumers.”
New varieties also are more productive and, therefore, more profitable, said Jeff Olsen, president of the Visalia, Calif.-based Chuck Olsen Co.
“If you can get 2,000 19-pound carton equivalents per acre, compared to 800 or 900, it makes a difference,” he said.