With 10 weeks to go until the first 2010 California table grapes are harvested in the Coachella Valley of Southern California, growers are starting to assess the upcoming season.

John Pandol, director of special projects for Pandol Brothers, Inc., Delano, Calif. says “so far, so good. We’ve had adequate chilling hours. It looks like there’s more water in the hills than we’ve had in a while. Bud break came out nicely. We have more than enough bunches to make a full crop.”

Pandol grows, markets and ships table grapes and other fresh fruit.

Unlike last year, California producers probably won’t have to contend with the kind of competition they faced from cherries in 2010, he observes. “Last year, Washington growers produced the mother of all cherry crops,” Pandol says. “It blew every other fruit off the shelves and dominated the retail scene for six weeks. During that time, the market for table grapes was dead.”

Table grape sales typically represent about eight percent of the fresh fruit market, according to Pandol. However, for a few weeks last summer, their share of produce sales fell to six percent. “It took a while for table grapes to regain that 2 percent loss,” Pandol says.

The state’s acreage of table grapes has remained stable over the past decade, however, total production continues to increase as growers replace Thompson seedless with higher-yielding varieties, like Scarlet Royal, Princess, Autumn King and a few proprietary varieties. Thompson seedless is probably half of what it was 15 years ago, he notes.

Pandol is concerned about the future of California table grapes.

“Right now, in terms of new variety development, the industry’s in a funk. “In some cases, new varieties haven’t lived up to initial expectations,” Pandol says. “Last fall I was part of a group of growers which looked at 20 varieties that were candidates for small commercial trials. Each had its merits, but none was the full package.

“The marketplace tells us that we have to differentiate ourselves from other products and other sellers by developing new varieties,” he says. “Currently, just four varieties – Thompson seedless, Flame, Crimson and Red Globe – account for about 70 percent of California production,” Pandol says. Adding the next four most popular varieties brings that figure to around 90 percent. Some in the trade think we’re going to an industry producing 4 million boxes each of 25 varieties, or even producing 50 varieties each at 2 million boxes. Then, we’d become like the tree fruit industry.

At the same time, supermarkets seem to reducing the number of different items they are willing to stock to simplify operations, he notes. Pandol estimates that black grapes represent no more than about 2 percent to 3 percent of all table grape sales. “If the stores didn’t offer them, consumers would probably buy red grapes,” he says. “The stores would sell just as many grapes but they would have one less item to handle. Two store chains to whom we sell have advised us that they will no longer routinely carry black seedless grapes. Although some stores want tri-color clamshell containers in their displays, others prefer to go with just red and white grapes in their clamshells. It will be really interesting to see which direction the industry goes.”