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Sonora Grape Summit draws more marketers, but North American buyers scarce

The annual Sonora Spring Grapes Summit, held April 25-26 in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, was well attended with strong participation from U.S. grape marketers, Mexican producers, Latin American buyers and even two California-based Pacific Rim traders.

But in contrast to previous years, this there were no retailers or wholesalers represented from either the United States or Canada, according to John Pandol, photo5 Mexican grape exports this year are projected to be 17 million boxes, up 76,000 boxes from last year.a director at Pandol Bros. Inc. in Delano, CA, and chairman of the grape committee of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales, AZ, who served as emcee for the event.

Hosted by the Asociation Agricola Local de Productores Uva de Mesa, the local association of table grape growers commonly known by its Spanish acronym, AALPUM, the two-day summit is open to producers, distributors, buyers and anyone else in the industry who is interested in attending.

The summit consisted of three events: a tour of grape vineyards April 25, a dinner that evening with some 250 people attending, and meetings on April 26 with several high-profile speakers and the much-awaited announcement of the industry's official 2013 crop projections.

Total Mexican grape exports this year are projected to be 17 million boxes, up just 76,000 boxes from last year.

"We noticed a lot more of the U.S. marketers down there, I'd say, than in the last few years," Mr. Pandol told The Produce News April 30. "They are finding that if you want to talk to the industry, it's just the place to be."

Marketers attending the event were not just from border towns like Nogales.

"If we look at the grape marketing, a substantial amount of the marketing of the Sonora grapes is performed by organizations that don't have a base in Nogales," Mr. Pandol said.

Some of the major grape marketers do have their headquarters in Nogales, and others, which may be based in California or elsewhere, have seasonal or year-round sales offices in Nogales.

Some "actually move their staff" to Nogales for the Sonora grape season, said Mr. Pandol. But many others, for example Pandol Bros., "don't even bring a sales presence down there" but sell from "some other location," he said. "We saw a lot of those types of people that really don't base themselves in Nogales during the season at this year's summit," perhaps because they have fewer opportunities otherwise to talk with producers than do those who are based in Nogales.

"On the buyer side," Mr. Pandol said, "we did see a lot of buyers from Central America and Mexico." For them, the summit is "absolutely an opportunity" to size up the Sonora grape deal "and start making their plans."

Commenting on the fact that there were U.S.-based Pacific Rim traders at the summit, Mr. Pandol added, "I would expect this year that a larger percent of the crop will go to non-North American destinations."

Unlike in past years when the vineyard tour was designed largely to give buyers an opportunity to take a look at the crops, see how they are coming along and learn about how they are grown, the visit to grape vineyards at this year's summit was more grower-oriented, Mr. Pandol explained.

There were three host vineyards and the tour made a total of 10 stops, seeing "a full range of varieties." That part of the summit "really is more of a grower exchange," he said. Participants "discussed from a farming point of view what day they did certain activities," for example.

One of the vineyards "had some trials with grapes under shade cloth -- protected agriculture," he said. "The remarks were that while it really didn't change the timing, it did seem to reduce the input, with similar quality and yields."

The trials were largely field tests evaluating the effects of different colors or densities of nettings over the vineyards.

The vineyards on the tour had grapes at all stages from the earliest to some of the latest in the deal. In the earliest vineyards, "we were looking at fruit that was two to maybe three weeks out," Mr. Pandol said. "We saw good yields with fairly uniform bunches and every indication that the quality will be good." But it was too early to make a guess on berry size.

At the meetings on Friday, there were discussions not only of the Mexican crop but of the prospects of overlap between the end of the Chilean season and the start of the Sonora deal.

Even more attention was given to "the back end of the season" and the likelihood of a significant overlap with the start of California's San Joaquin Valley grape season, which is tracking early this year, he said. "There is no question that there will be overlap on the back end," so the discussion centered on how to manage that.

Among the speakers at the event was David Marguleas, senior vice president of sourcing, licensing and research and development at Sun World international LLC in Bakersfield, who "gave a discussion on the global perspective of marketing" and how new grape varieties can fit into the picture, Mr. Pandol said.

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Rosario Marin, who came from Mexico with her family at age 14, "addressed the general session" and later that evening spoke at a social gathering of growers and their wives and children, he said.

Nancy Tucker, vice president of global business development for the Produce Marketing Association, spoke on some of the major trends in the industry with which PMA is involved, he said.

The discussion on crop projections was led by Mr. Pandol and Juan Laborin, AALPUM's executive director.

In the crop projections, it appeared that generally there are fewer Perlettes than in years past, "a few more Sugraones and slightly less Flames," Mr. Pandol said.

The Flame estimate was just under 7.2 million boxes, Sugraones were estimated at 4.8 million boxes, Perlettes at 2.5 million boxes and Red globes at 900,000 boxes.

The "others" category now constitutes over 1.6 million boxes, including numbers of black seedless varieties and test varieties.

Many growers "have trials of different varieties from programs around the world," Mr. Pandol said. "That will continue to increase."