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The 2009 grape harvest in California's San Joaquin Valley, home to the preponderance of fresh-market grape vineyards in the United States, got off to a faster-than-expected start, with many shippers saying that their first Flames were ready to harvest with full color, full sugar and good berry size a week or more sooner than anticipated.

The phenomenon occurred not just in the traditionally early districts at the southern end of the valley but north through Delano and up into the Reedley and Fresno areas.

As is always the case, not everyone had the same experience. Soils, microclimates, cultural practices and other factors can cause variations in timing from one vineyard to another. But on the whole, growers, shippers and buyers alike were caught by surprise with the fast start of the deal and the strong early volume.

Quality, most shippers said, has been outstanding -- some of the better in years. But markets were not ready for the sudden surge in volume.

From a marketing standpoint, it was in many ways the perfect storm. Grape volumes from the Coachella Valley and Mexico deals that precede the San Joaquin Valley season were lighter than normal with generally strong pricing, so retailers did not set up their usual number of grape ads for the Fourth of July weekend, opting instead to feature other products such as cherries, which were available in unusually high volume and at unusually low prices out of the Northwest. One retailer in Fresno, CA, for example, was selling three- pound clamshells of Bings for $1.99, while grapes were more than that per pound.

Although some grapes were expected to start in Arvin and other early areas by the end of June, few growers interviewed by The Produce News in June expected to have any significant volume from the San Joaquin Valley until mid-July. But a generally cool June punctuated with spikes of hot weather somehow accelerated the Flames while enhancing their quality attributes at the same time, and they came on in volume just as the already sluggish market demand took its usual post-holiday dip.

Quality and maturity have been so good in the Flame vineyards that growers are generally completing the harvest in one or two passes rather than the usual three to five, and many expect the Flame season to conclude earlier than usual, leaving a substantial gap between the Flames and the next major red variety, Crimsons. Unless, of course, Crimsons come on early as well, which some see as a possibility. Some Crimson vineyards as far north as Reedley were already beginning to color as early as July 7, which is remarkable for a variety that sometimes struggles to get color.

If there is a gap, however, many shippers have newer varieties of red seedless grapes, such as Sweet Scarlet, coming into production that should be available right about that time to help bridge the gap. Some growers also still have Rubys available, and they may find a good window this year.

"It looks like everything is coloring up all over the valley," John Harley, sales manager at Anthony Vineyards in Bakersfield, said July 8. "We have been hearing guys starting up in Delano and up in Fresno." Size has been good "across the board," he said.

"I think the Flame harvest is going to go quick," Atomic Torosian, a managing partner at Crown Jewels Marketing in Fresno, said July 10. "But overall, everything looks good."

"There is just not enough business yet" for the volume, Jerry Havel, director of sales and marketing for Fresh Farms in Nogales, AZ, said July 9. "Business has been really slow this week. But the farther we get from the holiday, the better it will be." Quality has been "really good," he said.

The color on the Flames has been "incredible," and that should help drive demand, said Scott Mabs, director of marketing for Homegrown Organic Farms in Porterville, CA.

"We thought we were late," then "the sugar changed, the color changed," and "a wave of Flames came all at once," said Keith Andrew, domestic sales manager at Columbine Vineyards in Delano. "It is a tough volume to handle when you had already told people you were going to be starting a week later."

The Flames are "excellent," said Shaun Ricks, president of The Grape Guys in Cutler, CA. "It is a vintage year. They may be the best Flames we have seen in recent memory." But he expects that most of them "will be gone by the middle of August."

(For more on California grapes, see the July 27 issue of The Produce News.)