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The front end of the grape season in the San Joaquin Valley of California was slow to start, with early varieties, particularly Flame seedless, being not only delayed by the unusually cool, wet spring weather but beset with quality problems and packing out under estimate. Many growers said it has been a year like none they remember.

But late-summer and fall varieties appear to be returning to a more normal timing and are expected to have much better quality and packouts.

Opinions differ as to whether there will be a significant overlap as the later varieties come on strong while the delayed early varieties are still finishing or whether the early varieties will be light enough and short enough to prevent such a bunching up of volume from occurring. Many think the total industry volume for season will be well below even the most recently revised official estimates.

Most of the growers and shippers interviewed by The Produce News said that they see good promotional opportunities for the balance of the season, but they do not expect an inventory glut as long as movement and retail support remain strong.

What is clear is that there is a larger percentage of the crop remaining to be marketed than in a typical year. Even in a normal year, late summer and fall are peak season for California grapes, and in recent years, with the introduction of new late-season red, green and black seedless varieties both public and proprietary, the late deal has become increasingly important.

As always, there are two caveats. One is that the weather between now and harvest time on any particular vineyard can change the picture significantly. The other is that how well any given variety does in any particular vineyard depends on numerous factors such as location, microclimate, soil and cultural practices — and what a grower sees in his own vineyards may not always reflect what is happening industrywide.

Evidence of that is seen in the fact that while most Flame vineyards harvested in the valley this season have shown considerable size variation within the bunches — and there have also been widespread problems with splitting as well as some botrytis, all leading to low packouts — there are a few blocks of Flames that have had good production with uniform size structure and virtually no quality problems.

In most cases, however, picking crews have had to spend a lot of extra time clipping and cleaning up the bunches in order to put up a quality pack of Flames. And even then, the percentage of No. 2 packs on the market is much higher than most years.

"Overall, looking at total numbers, I think we are going to see the crop, in our case, [that] is going to come up a little bit shorter than we anticipated," Tony Fazio, president of Fazio Marketing Inc. in Fresno, CA, said Aug. 9.

So far, demand has been good throughout the season, he said.

Louie Galvan, an owner of Fruit Royale Inc. in Delano, CA, said Aug. 6 that “coming into the season ... we were up to a couple of weeks late, but now [it is] starting to get back towards normal harvest dates for these later varieties ... . It is normalizing as we get through the summer here.”

As with several other shippers, Fruit Royale is “heavy to the latter part of the deal” and will have at least 70 percent of its volume yet to harvest after Sept. 1.

“I think the overall crop is going to be significantly less than what the [California Table] Grape Commission has projected, and they have already come off one projection,” said Sean Stockton, president of Sundale Sales Inc. in Tulare, CA.

According to Sheri Mierau, vice president of sales and marketing for Fruit Patch Sales LLC in Dinuba, CA, most producers have been getting “about a 30 percent less packout” on Flames. “Overall, the fruit quality is excellent,” she continued. “It is just not packing out quite as good as everyone had anticipated.”

She expects to see a similar issue with Crimsons which, for Fruit Patch, were set to start about the end of August.

Because of a “lack of supply on the Flames” and a good number of retail ads in place, Jared Lane, vice president of sales and marketing at Stevco Inc. in Bakersfield, CA, said Aug. 8, “I see a [possible] gap between Crimsons and Flames. It might get a little tight here” if the Crimsons are slow to color. However, with recent cool weather, “Crimson color has been moving at a very rapid pace.” He added, “I do expect very good things from Princess, Crimson, Scarlet Royals, all those late varieties,” because they seem to have handled the cool weather in March and April better than the earlier varieties.

“I think this crop is going to pack out much lighter on most all varieties,” said Atomic Torosian, a managing partner with Crown Jewels Marketing LLC in Fresno, CA. “Demand is exceeding the short supply so far.”