The harvest season starts in earnest with the central San Joaquin Valley’s Thompson seedless crop, the largest variety in the state.

Crews began harvesting green Thompsons the first weekend in August.

According to NASS the raisin-type variety grape forecast is 1.9 million tons, down 13.4 percent from the 2011 final production. NASS’ objective measurement survey, counted an average of 29.1 bunches per vine for a bearing acreage of 205,000 acres. By comparison, there are 95,000 acres of Chardonnay and 80,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in the state.

The NASS bunch count is below the counts for the Raisin Bargaining Association (31 bunches per vine) and Sun Maid Growers (32 bunches), but above the Allied count (26 bunches).

It’s too early to determine who won the bunch count lottery, but an old axiom is surfacing with early harvest weight tags.

“It’s the old story; a projected light crop gets lighter,” said DiBuduo. “It’s too early to make a broad statement about crop size, but initial loads are showing fields lighter than have been estimated.”

DuBuduo believes NASS is off 25 percent on its Thompson crop estimate.

Last year’s Thompson crop was one of the biggest green crops in history at 11.25 tons per acre. This season’s crop was estimated pre-harvest down 18 percent to 9.25 tons.

DiBuduo estimates only 10 percent to 20 percent of this season’s crop remains unsold from the state’s 850,000 acres of grapes.

(For more, see: Wine grape crop poised for record sales)

That is a far cry from crops earlier in the decade, when prices were below the cost of production and grapes were left hanging unsold on the vine. Some growers opted to custom crush to see if they could profitably sell their crops as bulk wine.

The $325 green Thompson price Allied is reporting is a piece of the economic puzzle now in place for growers who must decide soon whether they will go to the winery or make raisins with their Thompsons and other raisin-type grapes.

Thompson acreage has fallen dramatically in the past decade as other crops offered higher returns. Almost 100,000 acres of Thompsons have been taken out over the past decade and acreage is still falling at the rate of 2 percent to 4 percent per year. 5,000 acres were reported taken out this year, despite record green and dry prices. This has tightened the raisin supply to a very thin line separating supply and demand.

It is much more expensive to plant a vineyard than an orchard. Not counting land costs, a grower can easily spend $10,000 per acre or more to establish a trellised vineyard versus $6,000 to $7,000 for an almond orchard.

Raisin Bargaining Association Chief Executive Officer Glen Goto said no field price has been set, and negotiations with packers are continuing. The raisin harvest should begin in earnest by the end of August, although zante currants will be harvested earlier and growers are now cutting canes for DOV harvest in some early varieties like Selma Pete.