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Until the second week of July, it had been a tough year for grapes. Chilean exports came in much later than ever before, causing problems for grape markets as the spring grape deals got underway in Sonora, Mexico, and the Coachella Valley in the Southern California desert. Both of those production regions had large crops, contributing to a continued excess of fruit in the market and poor prices.

The Mexico and Coachella deals also ran late, and even though the start of the grape harvest in the San Joaquin Valley in Central California, the state's largest producing area, was delayed as well due to cool spring weather, growers were concerned that there might be a significant overlap, with shipments from Mexico and Coachella continuing strong after the start of the Central California deal.

That concern persisted into the week of July 5, even as a few growers with very early vineyards in the southern San Joaquin Valley began harvesting some Perlettes, Flames and Sugraones. But by Monday, July 12, when several other Central California growers got into the game, it had become evident that the major overlap many had feared had failed to materialize.

For various reasons -- ranging from quality and condition issues on some of the grapes in Mexico to unattractive pricing in U.S. markets -- a substantial volume of fruit in Mexico was diverted to the national market rather than exported, or was sold for juice or simply left on the vines. At the same time, strong retail promotions in the United States created significant demand, allowing marketers of Mexican fruit in Nogales, AZ, as well as shippers in Coachella to clean up inventory faster than expected, clearing the pipeline for a strong start for the San Joaquin Valley deal.

Some grapes from Mexico and Coachella may continue to be in the market through much of July and possibly into August for certain varieties -- but not, apparently, in significant volume.

"It's going to be an aggressive start," Anthony Stetson, vice president of sales for Pandol Bros. in Delano, CA, said July 13. "We've got good demand. We've held prices strong. We're $14 to $15 on Flames today, which is a good start for Arvin," an early district in the San Joaquin Valley. Also, "demand has been very good."

Although the early varieties were getting a late start -- about 10 days late for Pandol Bros. -- Mr. Stetson expected that the later varieties would be closer to normal with regard to timing.

Early Flames and to some degree Sugraones were also showing some variation in berry size within bunches, growers said, but they expected that situation also to improve as the season moved along.

Except for the issue with berry size, growers said that fruit quality appears to be excellent this year, with good sugars, good color, few if any defects, and nice bunches. It also appeared that yields would be excellent, with a potential for a large crop -- all of that subject, as always, to weather throughout the remainder of the season.

"This is the first time that I have noticed that no one has really rushed in the Arvin area to get fruit off" at the start of the season, observed Nick Dulcich, a partner in Jacov P. Dulcich & Sons and president of Sunlight International Sales Inc. in McFarland, CA. Wanting to give the spring grape deals as much room to clean up as possible, "everybody has sort of let the fruit come the way it should. ... So in essence, this being a little later is good," he said. "Demand is active, and prices are normal for this time of the year."

"We are seeing strong interest in promotional programs from a wide cross section of retailers and other customers," Tony Fazio, president of Fazio marketing Inc. in Fresno, CA, said July 7. "We see very strong demand to promote the Central California grapes. We are very pleased."

(For more on California grapes, see the July 26, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)