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Early start, smooth transition seen for San Joaquin Valley grapes

The spring grape deals out of Sonora, Mexico, and California’s Coachella Valley both got off to an early start this year and are expected to finish earlier than usual for most varieties, but grape shippers anticipate a smooth transition from those districts into the San Joaquin Valley as the early vineyards in the San Joaquin are also ahead of schedule.

“At this point, it looks like we will be starting in the San Joaquin  Valley sometime the week of June 16,” said Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission. “Then we will be busy picking and packing probably into December, if the last two years are any indication, and shipping into February.”01-EarlySJV-CropThe 2014 California grape crop is forecast to total 116.5 million 19-pound boxes, which would edge out the previous record set in 2013. (Photo courtesy of the California Table Grape Commission)

One strength of the California table grape industry is “that it is such a long season,” said Nave. ”The fact that we started in Coachella Valley this year April 28 and will be picking grapes in California into December and shipping them into February is a tremendous strength in markets around the world.  So we need volume that begins in May and carries us all the way through that time period, because we have a lot of customers,” including retailers and foodservice operators around the world who want product on a consistent basis, and the more of that we can provide the better.”

For that reason, “it is critically important that we have fruit in the Coachella  Valley” in the spring “and that we have fruit in the San Joaquin Valley” early enough that there is “a seamless transition” from Coachella. That early San Joaquin Valley fruit carries from late spring into summer, “then that carries us into the fall, which carries us into the winter,” Nave said.

This year, “we are expecting that we will be picking fruit in the Coachella Valley into the end of June,” she said. “The San Joaquin Valley will start probably the third week” of June, and by the fourth week, “we should have a lot of people going in the San Joaquin Valley. That is a good transition from one valley to the other. But from my perspective, we have a California table grape crop, and that begins in May, and we ship the final boxes into February.”

The 2013 California fresh grape crop exceeded expectations and came in at a record 116.2 million 19-pound boxes. The 2014 crop is officially estimated at 116.5 million boxes, which, if realized, would just edge out last year’s record.

The earlier start to the California grape season this year is giving growers a longer time to market their crop, said John Harley, vice president of sales and marketing at Anthony Vineyards Inc. in Bakersfield, CA, which has grapes in the Coachella Valley as well as the San Joaquin Valley. “There is not a lot of pressure forcing movement, so the prices have been stable,” he said. “It has been good thus far, and I really do see that moving into the Arvin district as well.”

Several California shippers are also involved in the Sonora spring grape deal which roughly coincides, timing-wise, with the Coachella deal. Most Sonora grapes are grown in the Hermosillo area and the Caborca area. Hermosillo, the earlier of the two districts, is not only trending early this spring but is packing out lighter than anticipated. Caborca, the later district, appears to have a more normal sized crop. “We think that will have the effect,” at least on green grape varieties, of providing “steady supplies and a stable market. We think that will transition nicely,” said Shaun  Ricks, vice president of Eagle Eye Grape Guys LLC in Visalia, CA.

Caborca should continue picking through around June 15-20 on Sugraones, and Arvin, traditionally the earliest district in the San Joaquin Valley, will start about that same time. “We do not anticipate that there will be significant inventories of Sugraones out of Mexico, so that could be a very seamless transition,” Ricks said.

On red grapes, “because the Hermosillo district is lighter, it is not going to carry over a lot of fruit into June. Therefore, the [Mexican] Flame supplies for the month of June must all come from Caborca, and the demand will be greater than that. Therefore, we expect that the Flame market will increase in price every week as we go through the month of June.” That increase has already started and was noticeable as early as May 27, he said.

The Grape Guys anticipated its first Sugraones in Arvin close to June 16, with Flames starting around June 23, he said.

Ricks was confident that California grape producers would set another volume record this year and that within a few short years, volume would exceed 125 million boxes, with the shipping season continuing to extend. “We will, as an industry, be commonly shipping through January 15,” he said. Some years, the San Joaquin Valley may finish up earlier, but “that will be the exception.”

 Most years, “with the ability to cover the vineyards and the ability to pick and put in pick tubs and pack at a later time as needed, so that the fruit is as freshly packed as possible, are things that are going to allow us to go later than ever. If I were the Chileans and the Peruvians, I would take heed and not try to be early. I think there is still a place for them, but I think that place is beginning more in February, with maybe a trickle in January,” he said.

“We like where we are as an industry,” Ricks added. “I think we are in a good position. We just have to manage it and be good stewards and make sure that the product we are shipping out is suitable.”