The rapidity with which the Autumn King green seedless grape has gone from its release by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2005 to its present position as the dominant green grape variety for the late season, is something of a phenomenon.
There are certainly other green seedless varieties grown during the fall season, including some from private breeding programs that have outstanding characteristics as well. But nearly every major grower in the state now has Autumn Kings in production, many have increased acreage in production this year, and several have invested heavily in the variety.
Foundation Plant Services, a department of the University of California, Davis, in its Nov. 2005 newsletter, described Autumn Kings "a white seedless grape that ripens late and has very large berries with a sweet neutral flavor." White seedless and green seedless are synonymous in the industry, although retailers and consumers generally use the term "green" while "white" is a carry-over from the wine industry, since green grapes are used to make white wines.
The Autumn King variety "ripens about eight weeks after Thompson Seedless," according to FPS. That puts the start of the harvest into October, and that, combined with the variety's other appealing characteristics, has helped bring about the decline of the storage Thompson deal that once dominated the late season.
The Produce News talked to several growers and shippers regarding what they like about Autumn King, why they think it has so quickly ascended to its present status of autumn preeminence, and what challenges they have experienced with the variety.
Jeff Olsen, vice president of The Chuck Olsen Co. in Visalia, CA, called Autumn King an "awesome" grape that has basically brought an end to the 16-pound storage Thompsons. "It has a lot of eye appeal to it" because of its large size," he said. "The size is phenomenal and production is phenomenal. It is good for everybody."
At times, at the start of the harvest, "it doesn't seem to have a lot of acid," he said. "So sit is a little bit bland. But as you progress through the season, it seems to get better."
The success of the Autumn King "is due to the size and the appearance," said Anthony Stetson, sales manager at Columbine Vineyards in Delano, CA, which has increased its acreage of the variety by 100 acres this year. "It is an enormous grape. It presents itself very well. And then the eating quality is very good.
"There were only a few of us that had [Autumn King] in the beginning," said Nick Dulcich, a partner in J.P. Dulcich & Sons and president of Sunlight International Sales Inc. in Delano, CA. "The first couple of years" after it came out "it didn't do that well." But last year, "we packed over three quarters of a million [boxes] of that variety."
There was a learning curve in growing the variety, he said. "It is all about crop management and disease management." But also "as the vines get older they tend to do a little better."
There are still "challenges with the variety," Dulcich said. "We've had it a long time. We know." One challenge can be getting Brix levels as high as retailers want to see them. But in terms of how well it eats, "a 14 Brix on an Autumn King is the same as a 17 Brix on a Thompson."
Autumn King is "a beautiful piece of fruit," said Jared Lane, vice president of sales and marketing at Stevco. "It is extremely large" and can be firm and crunchy. It is "very, very low in acid." If farmed correctly and picked "with the right amount of sugar, it can be a very good eating piece of fruit. But I think the big thing from a consumer standpoint is the eye appeal."
Lane concurred that it can be "challenging to farm," but it normally has "very good production," he said.
Sean Stockton, president of Sundale Sales Inc. in Tulare, CA, said that one of the key attributes of Autumn King is "the fact that it is late season green with tremendous shelf life. So you have a grape that is grown in California that can make it into December without any quality issues. Essentially, what it has done is it has created a new market for California table grapes that didn't exist just five years ago."
The days of the storage Thompson are pretty much a thing of the past. Putting Thompsons in storage in August is "no longer necessary when you can have Autumn Kings that are picked fresh in October and even into November." Stockton said. "That really extends the ability for the retail community to have a green table grape alongside of the many different red varieties" that are available during the Thanksgiving season and even into Christmas.
Another factor in favor of the Autumn King, he said, is that "the grape is significantly larger than any Thompson you could grow."
With regard to eating quality, "we have worked hard to understand the grape from its early years till now to make sure that the grape sugars up" and that with the grape's low acid, "you can still have great eating quality in an Autumn King." The flavor is different than a Thompson, he said. "You can't compare the two, flavor-wise." But Thompsons "were always best when eaten fresh," not after 60 or 70 days in storage, and "you can have a good-eating Autumn King a lot deeper into the season."
Autumn King "has really come around as a variety," and at retail "there has been really good acceptance of that variety," said Jim Llano, sales manager at Castle Rock Vineyards in Richgrove, CA.