Eagle Eye Grape Guys LLC in Visalia, CA, a subsidiary of Eagle Eye Produce Inc. in Idaho Falls, ID, is in the midst of its first California grape season since becoming an Eagle Eye company.
“Our program this year is going to land between two [million] and 2.5 million boxes,” said Shaun Ricks, co-founder of The Grape Guys and vice president of the present entity. “I’m talking just California, now. And it is heavy to reds.”
The company will also have “good supplies” of black seedless and green seedless grapes as well as Red Globe seeded grapes, he said, but the emphasis is on red seedless varieties, reflecting retailer and consumer preferences. “Retailers tend to have greater sales with red grapes than other colors for probably a few reasons that we could all come up with.”
Crop size, fruit size and fruit quality all look very good, he added, and although many growers in the state are experiencing an earlier than normal start, “the timing for us is about normal. However, our first picks are a little heavier than we would normally see,” with typically about 70 percent of the crop in each vineyard being harvested in the first pass. That makes the harvesting “very economical.” It could also potentially create some gaps “that we wouldn’t have otherwise,” but the larger crop size this year will diminish that risk.
In the San Joaquin Valley of California, Grape Guys has vineyards from Arvin, at the south end of the valley, all the way up to Fresno, stretching out over more geographic area in the state than all but a very few other grape packers, Ricks said.
The company was currently packing Flames and Summer Royals in Kern and Tulare counties and would be starting Princess in both counties within a week.
In red seedless grapes, “we will go from Flames to Crimsons and then the two new varieties — Vintage red and Scarlet Royal,” he said. “Scarlet Royals will start in September and finish in October. Vintage reds will start in October and finish in November. Crimsons will run throughout that period.”
In the green seedless category, “we will pack Princess through August,” moving into Thompsons around the end of August and continuing through September, and then finishing with Autumn Kings in October and November.
“On blacks, we are packing Summer Royals now” and will continue through August, then start Autumn Royals about the end of August, continuing “through November, probably.”
More of the crop this year will be packed in “the handle bag, also called the retail bag or the pouch bag.” It is also known as the gusseted bag or the stand-up bag.
Whatever it is called, it is a pack style that is “moving with great force” in the grape industry, Ricks said. “Most of the larger retailers are asking for some version of a bag with a handle, and some are asking for something that is high graphic and quite elaborate, and thereby quite expensive.” Others “just want a simple handle on the bag.”
His concern is that while “now we are able to recover” the increased costs through an up-charge, it will soon become expected and packers’ ability to receive a premium to cover their added costs will be lost, just as happened with slider bags in grapes and with pre-cooling and stickering in tree fruit.
New on sales at Eagle Eye this season is Eric Bono who was previously working in the strawberry industry with Sunrise Growers. In addition, Erasmo Marin, who has been with the company for “quite a few years, first in quality control and then in food safety, is now handling export sales.