Celebrating 100 Years of Table Grape Breeding

The first grapes were planted at the USDA Experiment Vineyard near Fresno, CA, in 1916, and the first table grape cultivar was developed there in 1923.
Originally printed in the November 2023 issue of Produce Business.

The California grape industry recently celebrated 100 years of cooperative research that has impacted the way the world grows, cultivates and consumes grapes, and has resulted in the creation of many new table and raisin grape varieties.

The work takes place at the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center (SJVASC) in Parlier, CA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS).

This historic grapevine breeding research program develops new, high-quality, disease-resistant table grapes and raisins cultivars. The first table grape cultivar was developed in 1923.

According to a station history written by Dr. Craig Ledbetter, an experimental vineyard was first established in 1916, on 20 acres donated by a group of grape growers who wanted unbiased recommendations of the best varieties to be grown for table grapes, raisins and wine.

Since then, ARS scientists have developed over half of the top 10-15 seedless grape varieties. The red seedless “Flame” cultivar grape was grown by ARS scientists in 1973. The green seedless “Autumn King” grape was developed and released in 2006, and in 1983, ARS scientists invented seedless black grapes. USDA-bred table grape varieties accounted for 36% of the volume California table grape growers produced in 2022.

The “elusive character of seedlessness” was of great importance to table grape breeding, even in the mid-20th century, Ledbetter writes. “Between 1923 and 1951, nearly 46,000 grape seedlings were produced from planned hybridization in the quest for new seedless cultivars.”

“The phenomenal research conducted by our scientists over the past 100 years created a billion-dollar industry and has defined how the world grows and consumes table grapes,” says ARS Administrator Dr. Simon Liu.

Red seedless grapes were unknown to U.S. consumers before ARS released the Flame variety. The release of another ARS variety, Crimson red seedless, in 1989 further increased this table grape’s popularity.

“The farming community in California produces 99% of the table grapes grown in the United States, and scientists working at SJVASC have led this effort,” says ARS Pacific West Area Director Dr. Tara McHugh.

The California table grape growing community has partnered with ARS since 1981 to develop new varieties, and since 2001 to protect and commercialize them in the U.S. and grape-growing countries around the world, according to Ross Jones, California Table Grape Commission senior vice president and chief science and technology officer.

Jones recognized the accomplishments of ARS breeders and their teams saying, “they have worked to bring the hopes and dreams of generations of growers to fruition through the development of the kind of new cultivars that changed the trajectory of individual farming operations and the expectations and eating habits of consumers around the world.”

“It is not an overstatement to say that this program changed the table grape industry and the world of table grape breeding. The new varieties that have emerged have, without question, helped the table grape farming community be sustainable and competitive,” says Jones.