California Grapes: Growing More Diverse Every Year

Grapes Display

New varieties bring better mouth appeal to a familiar and popular fruit.

Organic GrapesThe time may finally come for Thompson Seedless, Perlette and Crimson grapes to step aside because a new breed of table grapes has arrived in California vineyards.

These new grape varieties, and there are many of them, are promised by grape growers to bring better size, color, flavor and crunch to the category.

The challenge and opportunity for retailers is not a simple question of replacing the Thompson Seedless or Perlette with the new standards, because the industry has shifted to literally scores of unique grapes that each offer a unique eating experience, or fill a particular sweet spot in the season.

“There will be plenty of varieties to promote, more than 85 in fact, each with their own distinct characteristics of color, texture and flavor,” says Cindy Plummer, vice president of domestic marketing for the California Table Grape Commission, Fresno, CA. “There is also a good mix of long-time consumer favorites and newer ones to choose from.”

With so many available, retailers would do well to redesign the grape section to always include more distinctive items available at the same time.

“Have different varieties available at the same time,” says Mimi Corsaro-Dorsey, vice president of marketing at Giumarra Vineyards, Bakersfield, CA. “Have different colors and flavors available at the same time, and both more traditional and premium priced varieties.”

Because breeders have developed so many new table grapes — and they are not done — the shift is not toward a handful of new standards, but instead toward a larger number of new varieties that each takes a turn at center stage for a relatively shorter time.

“There’s a dramatic reduction in Crimson, the old late season standard,” says Steve Kenfield, senior vice president of value added at HMC Marketing Group, Kingsburg, CA. “Five to 10 varieties are taking its place. The new ones are crisper, and have better flavor, color and size.”

This better-tasting fruit still benefits from the national brand reputation that California table grapes have built over the decades.

“Research shows that 96 percent of primary shoppers in the United States say they prefer grapes grown in California versus another country when prices are the same,” says Plummer. “Seventy-seven percent say they still prefer California grapes, even if they’re priced higher than grapes from other origins.”

These preferred grapes will arrive over a season that can be extended to last most of the year, as the first of the expected 2 billion pounds harvested shipped from the Coachella Valley in May and the last will come out of cold storage in January 2018.

A Wealth Of Varieties

Grape shippers are enthusiastic about their new and improved fruit, and what it is doing for the category.

“There are lots of new varieties,” says Jim Beagle, chief executive at Grapery Inc., Bakersfield, CA. “They represent improvements in terms of more seedless grapes, available at different times that both store and taste better. There has been great improvement in California table grapes, and I see a proliferation of varieties for the foreseeable future. I see good varieties for all the time slots — the earliest from Coachella in early May to the storage grapes in January.”

Today’s well-stocked grape section must offer more choices at the same time than before, because the differences in the flavor, color, size and crunch of the grapes have become far more subtle.

“If you were to put varieties on a schematic, the differences will become smaller, like with apples,” says Kenfield. “Most growers are replacing older varieties with newer ones.”

The greatest new diversity in the grapes will come in the early fall, when the fruit from the cooler growing areas is harvested.

“There are more varieties,” says Rob Spinelli, sales representative at Anthony Vineyards, Bakersfield, CA. “The majority of the new ones are in the San Joaquin Valley in the late fall. In the Coachella Valley there’s no early or late, it’s all the same.”

Shippers are excited because, by and large, California table grapes taste better than they did a decade or two ago.

“You’ll see vastly improved white seedless varieties; you’re starting to see it now,” says Jon Zaninovich, president of Jasmine Vineyards Inc., Delano, CA. “Thompson and Perlettes are a thing of the past. Flame seedless is the last of the old red varieties. Scarlet Royal is the dominant red now. The whole grape category has changed in the past 10 years.”

Private companies, including some large growing operations, are responsible for much of the current breeding work, and some of these shippers are working hard to develop brand identities for particular varieties they have developed.

“We have our own breeding program,” says Corsaro-Dorsey. “In the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve changed more than half of our varieties. The new ones have better size and shelf life, and are easier to grow. They also have better flavor; that’s what we look for first. Overall, they give a better eating experience.”

Giumarra Vineyard’s new varieties include green Sweeties, red Passion Fire and Passion Punch, and black varieties Mystic Dream and Mystic Broom. “More varieties are being branded,” says Corsaro-Dorsey. “We make the name of the variety visible on the bag.”

Even with this explosion of new varieties, few shippers see the emergence of a significant market for proprietary fruit that is available exclusively from just one major retailer.

“Thompson and Perlettes are a thing of the past. Flame seedless is the last of the old red varieties. Scarlet Royal is the dominant red now. The whole grape category has changed in the past 10 years. ”

— Jon Zaninovich, Jasmine Vineyards

“In my opinion, retailers are after being competitive in price and quality; I don’t think it matters if the variety is proprietary,” says Beagle.

One reason proprietary varieties figure to remain limited is most breeders and shippers are looking to capture larger market share.

“Most retailers want what is appealing to their customers,” says Kenfield. “Proprietary varieties bind both the shipper and the retailer.”

A practical limit on exclusivity is that some of the varieties developed by major shippers are grown by a network of farmers who also sell to other shippers or retailers.

“We are not exclusive to any store,” says Corsaro-Dorsey. “We have growers who use our varieties and sell half their grapes to us; we cannot control who they sell the rest to.”

This remains an area under construction, as retailers explore whether there is a way they can merchandize both proprietary varieties that bring a premium and mainstream grapes that can be sold at promotional prices.

“Retailers are still researching new ways to increase specialized variety sales on higher FOB varieties and still remain competitive on the volume varieties,” says Bert Boyd, representative for Sunlight International Sales, Delano, CA.

Some of the new grapes, even when not sold exclusively, are creating more interest in the entire category.

“Specialty grapes are generating a lot of buzz and excitement, which is great for the category, and retailers should look at pulsing these items in and out throughout the year to leverage that excitement for something unique and seasonal to drive incremental sales,” says Natalie Erlendson, director of marketing at Sun World International, Bakersfield, CA.

The sheer volume of new and interesting grapes that take their turn at center stage makes it profitable to take promotion to a new level.

“It is important to advertise often to get grapes on the lists of those shoppers who make many of their purchasing decisions before they even step foot in the store,” says Plummer. “Two ways to get California grapes top of mind with shoppers is through beautiful, eye-catching displays and radio advertisements.”

The potential impact of promoting California grapes frequently throughout their long season is nothing short of staggering.

“To maximize sales, retailers are encouraged to promote grapes from California three to five times per month; doing so can increase sales by 30 to 57 percent,” says Plummer. “Front page ads create the greatest impact on the grape category followed by front page ads coupled with in-store price reductions.”

The Pipeline Will Continue

Retailers should be prepared for a new normal, as the category will continue to be more complex with the addition of new grapes that reach peak flavor at different times of the season.

One reason new varieties will keep coming at a faster pace is that grower-shippers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private breeders are all working on breeding programs.

“The big thing in the grape industry is the great new varieties,” says HMC Marketing Group’s Kenfield. “I think we have a larger number of new varieties than we’ve ever had because we have private breeders in addition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It used to be the USDA would come out with a variety and everybody would plant it.”

There are particular new varieties that shipper-breeders hope — and expect — will be the next stars of the category.

“Our late season Adora Seedless and Autumn Crisp brand grapes will make up a majority of the new production, which will allow us to begin to fulfill the increasing global demand for these grapes,” says Erlendson. “We will also see new production on our tropically flavored Sable Seedless, as well as some public varieties to help us carry all three colors of grapes throughout the entire California season.”

Sun World has developed an impressive promotion campaign that includes telling the story of how their grapes are produced. “We know what consumers want most is a consistently delicious grape, so our focus is on building a portfolio of varieties that will deliver just that in red, green, black, and bringing our vast global network of licensees to deliver that on the shelf in a recognizable brand 365 days a year,” says Erlendson. “They also want to buy from companies that are doing right by people, the planet and society, which is why we are sharing more information on how we bring our grapes to market through our ‘Better Farms, Better Flavor’ promise.”

Much of the constant change in grapes has to do, however, with growers’ need to produce fruit more economically because prices are set in an increasingly competitive global market.

“The California Table Grape Commission’s first estimate of the 2017 crop is 112 million pounds, but most believe this is a conservative estimate and the crop could be well over that number. ”

— Natalie Erlendson, Sun World International

“Growers are looking to plant new varieties for a few different reasons: Greater yields per acre due to the rising costs for water and labor, because consumers desire a consistently great eating experience which some older varieties do not meet, and new varietals are being planted to require less hand work, less water and to prevent pest and disease,” says Erlendson. “All these inputs are rising in cost.”

The impact at the retail level of better-yielding grapes that can be produced with fewer inputs is why California table grapes remain cost competitive.

“We’ve had a lot of planting and replanting, and new varieties,” says Jasmine Vineyards’ Zaninovich. “The industry has started taking advantage of the money spent on breeding programs, both private and the USDA. The new varieties have better yield, quality, berry size and color — everything. It’s the only way we can compete in the world market with our labor costs and water restrictions.”

No Gap In Organics

Organic table grapes out of California brought more than $65 million in farm gate prices in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, as many major retailers figure they must be able to offer a diversity of organic table grapes.

Anthony Vineyards, Bakersfield, CA, has staked out an important niche in being able to provide a single source that can ship organic table grapes without interruption of all colors from the beginning of the season with the Coachella Valley harvest in May to the end with the Northern San Joaquin Valley harvest in November.

“We’ve been doing organic since 2002,” says Rob Spinelli, sales representative at Anthony Vineyards. “We can do organic from May to November with no gaps. It’s attractive for retailers because they don’t have to keep looking for organic supply; we streamlined it. New guys are coming into organic, but they don’t have a program they can carry through the season.”

Demand is strong enough that Anthony Vineyards continues to add acreage of organic grapes from both early- and late-growing regions.

One Of The Biggest Crops In Years

The weather has been kinder than usual to California farmers this season, and the result should be an abundant supply of good-looking table grapes.

“The quality looks fantastic, thanks to the water supply and good weather,” says Beagle. “The crop will be somewhat similar to last year in terms of volume.”

Last year’s harvest of California table grapes was 2 billion pounds, and this year could be even more.

“The California grape season is well under way with an early estimate of 112.1 million 19-pound boxes; compared to just over 110 million 19-pound boxes shipped in 2016,” says Plummer. “If the estimate holds true, it will be the fourth year in a row where more than 110 million boxes were shipped.”

Jasmine Vineyards’ Zaninovich concurs. “It could be one of the biggest years we’ve had. A lot could happen, but the weather is cooperating.”

Some in the industry look at their own harvest figures and believe the California Table Grape Commission’s lofty estimate is too low.

“The California Table Grape Commission’s first estimate of the 2017 crop is 112 million boxes, but most believe this is a conservative estimate and the crop could be well over that number,” says Erlendson. “Sun World’s overall volume will grow more than 50 percent this year due to increasing outside grower commitments, particularly out of Mexico, and new plantings coming into production.”

While the abundant rains last winter should provide enough water to feed a large crop, the unusually cool weather in the early spring may delay some early harvest schedules.

“We’re a little bit behind the last three years, but the wet winter and cool spring should bring us in line with the historical norm,” says Anthony Vineyards’ Spinelli.

Once the harvest gets rolling, shippers expect an abundant supply of grapes that are a cut above the standards of the recent past.

The New Standard Package

Green Seedless GrapesWhile the mix of varieties grows ever more complex, the packaging for grapes has stabilized around the new standard of plastic bags that come with handles.

“Eighty-three percent of California grapes sold in the United States is sold in bags and 15 percent in clamshells,” says Cindy Plummer, vice president of domestic marketing for the California Table Grape Commission, Fresno, CA. “Of those sold in bags, 93 percent are in pouch bags and the rest in zip-type bags, sliders bag and non-sealable bags.”

Most of the grapes sold in clamshells are in the club stores.

“A few years ago, the industry switched to handle bags,” says Jim Beagle, chief executive at Grapery Inc., Bakersfield, CA. “Club stores may need clamshells for larger sizes, but packaging has stabilized around the handle pouch bag.”

Club stores also prefer clamshells because they usually do not have scales in their produce area.

“Bags and clamshells both have a place in the produce department,” says Plummer. “While there are some pouch bags sold as fixed weight, the majority of bagged grapes are sold as random weight, whereas clamshells are sold as fixed weight. There will always be a need for fixed weight packaging.”

Some shippers do find, however, they can draw attention to a particular variety by breaking the mold and offering it in clamshells with eye-catching graphics.

“There’s still a lot of room for opportunity in how we merchandise this category, which is very heavily impulse-driven,” says Natalie Erlendson, director of marketing at Sun World International, Bakersfield, CA. “We’re continuing to assess how to get the right packaging material, form and graphic design and messaging claims to capture consumers’ attention. Packaging can also help differentiate a product and drive better margin. One-pound clamshells for specialty varieties like Sable Seedless brand grapes are doing very well.”

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