Bigger is often better, it seems, in the world of table grapes; at least in the eyes of shoppers. And sweeter is even better than that.

Both of those attributes characterize much of the table grape crop that is flowing out of the San Joaquin Valley these days as the $1.2 billion harvest of the California fruit reaches its peak.

“Mother Nature did that,” said Steve Volpe, owner of Royal Madera Vineyards in Madera County, Calif. He said the better sizing and quality are more attributable this year to good weather conditions than to the tinkering that many growers do to increase size and sweetness – from using gibbrellic acid, and hand-thinning to girdling the cambium layer of vines to enhance berry size.

However, recent heat waves did take a toll.

“The 110-degree heat hurt us,” Volpe said. “Any exposed bunches were gone. If there was a good canopy, you were home free. We lost 10 percent to 15 percent of total production from exposed bunches.”

The damage throughout the industry did not appear to be widespread, and Volpe pronounced the overall harvest “a good vintage year, the quality is good.”

Unfortunately, Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League in Fresno, said demand appears to be slightly off, “possibly due to the economy, maybe consumers are buying a little less due to the recession overall.”

“Pricing is OK,” Bedwell added. “I don’t think anybody is terribly happy. It’s in the middle range; there have been years where it was better and years when it was certainly worse.”

Chic Kandarian, who grows grapes in the Selma-Fowler area of Fresno County, said prices by early August were in the $9 to $14 range per box, depending on variety, and demand “seems to be steady.”

“It’s not a banner year,” Kandarian said, “but it’s not a bloodbath.”

Among the season’s positives, Bedwell said, is plentiful labor. He said workers are returning to the fields as the economy slows their involvement in other enterprises: “construction, hospitality, restaurants.”

“We still need a legal labor force,” he said.

California produces 99 percent of the table grapes harvested in the United States. It’s estimated that this year the state’s crop will amount to the equivalent of 97.4 million 19-pound boxes. Jim Howard, vice president of the Fresno-based California Table Grape Commission, said last year’s crop was at 97 million and this year’s is “consistent with the five-year average.”

The giants in the table grape arena in California are two San Joaquin Valley counties, Kern County, which produced a $493 million crop in 2007, and Tulare County, where the crop was valued at $416 million.

The harvest started in the Coachella Valley about the second week of May, Bedwell said. It normally moves into the San Joaquin Valley around July 4, but some growers are able to get a jump on that date and started near the end of June this year.

About a third of California’s table grapes are exported to more than 60 overseas markets. The top five export destinations – in declining order – are Canada; Mexico; China; the Central America region that includes Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras; and Australia.

The state’s grape industry is made up of about 550 farmers who grow more than 60 varieties. The Grape Commission’s Howard said the top varieties by volume are Crimson, Flame Seedless and Thompson seedless.

Thompson, a mainstay for decades, is now getting a run for its money from competing green seedless varieties that include the Princess.

At a Fowler vineyard, huge Princess grapes were being harvested recently as David Heinz, owner of California Vineyard Service, sampled some and termed them excellent as he chatted with the vineyard’s owner, Gerry Hudson.

Hudson, who owns Wholesale Equipment of Fresno Inc., is also a partner in H&L Farms with Ken Lucero. He said picking started with Flames in their Fresno County vineyards June 26.

“The prices started good, at $18 a box,” Hudson said, adding that by early August the price was down to $14.

Hudson said he has been purchasing 20 to 30 acres of older almonds and walnuts at a time and converting them to vineyards.

Asked for a comparison to tree fruit, an industry where there are visible signs of stress that include packinghouse closures, Hudson said, “With tree fruit, (the shopper) doesn’t always know what they’re getting. With grapes, you do. You can take them home and eat them.”

Lucero said that while there have been no labor shortages, “it’s a challenge to be efficient with your labor. People are out there and available, but the minimum wage is up.”

He said marketing is also a challenge: “The market wants the biggest and the best. And that takes labor. The market can be very volatile.”