The crown jewels of the California wine grapes may be Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but when it comes to the benchmark pricing for grapes, it’s Thompson seedless.

Not everyone will agree with that. Obviously, you don’t hear the lowly Thompson discussed and dissected at fancy wine tastings because Thompsons/raisin grapes don’t belong in that crowd. However, Thompson grape demand and prices have an impact on the rest of California grape sales each year.

Many consider the annual Thompson price the floor for grape prices each year.

In 2008, more Thompson Seedless grapes were crushed for wine and concentrate (434,000 tons) than the individual crushes for Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. For Merlot that year, the Thompson crush was almost double that of Merlot wine grapes.

This year the San Joaquin Valley Thompson market is already heating up, even if the coastal premium varietal market is flatter than a week-old bottle of warm Chardonnay.

Allied Grape Growers President Nat DiBuduo told the wine grape marketing cooperative’s annual members meeting that white concentrate is currently “extremely short” because:

• Apple concentrate from China is available only at high prices equivalent to $200 per ton for white grape concentrate.

• South American concentrate supplies could be half the normal supply.

• Red concentrate is in high demand.

• Chilean concentrate product is in short supply.

In addition, the raisin market is good with sales up 7 percent, primarily because exports are up 20 percent. Domestic raisin sales are flat. Thompsons are a major component of the raisin market.

Strong exports have reduced the surplus by 40,000 tons from 2008. Demand could easily reach 300,000 tons this season, according to DiBuduo. This foretells a raisin field price increase for 2010.

Allied has already sent its automatic warning letter to Thompson Seedless growers grapes putting them on notice that they must get permission from the cooperative before they can sell green grapes to a raisin dehydrator. This letter was sent about a month before the annual meeting, and this year – possibly for the first time – a second letter clarified that dehydrator sales must also be approved.

DiBuduo said his concerns are twofold, the possibility of a lower than anticipated Thompson Seedless crop needed to meet winery and concentrate needs and early green price offers that he believes are not good for growers.

“It appears that the raisin industry is doing very well and in need of additional tonnage to meet their anticipated raisin needs for the coming year,” he said in the second letter sent to growers. “It is very important that our growers understand what their obligations are to Allied. Members cannot sell their grapes to raisin processors or a dehydrator without prior approval.”

DiBuduo said he is concerned with price offerings of $200 now from dehydrators. That’s above last year’s average of $165. “But it takes $50 to $60 a ton to pack and haul the grapes. That means a net price of (only) $140 to $150.”

Moreover, he contends, if the raisin price being discussed by the industry falls in the $1,180 to $1,278 per ton dry range — that equates to a green basis of about $235 to $255 a ton.

“Why would a grower sign up today at $200,” he said. No crush field price on green Thompsons had yet been set before the meeting.

“We need to protect the pricing and integrity of Thompson Seedless growers, whether it’s for the wineries or for raisins.”

Wine grapes earmarked for wine selling for $10 per bottle or less are in demand “from Lodi, Calif., south. Demand for red grapes for this bottle price category is the strongest. Chardonnay’s market remains weak due to bulk imports last year.

“Imports are down as of the end of April, and exports are doing better,” DiBuduo said. “Australia production is down. We hope to sell at last year’s prices or better.”

For the coastal grape growing region, the picture is different, DiBuduo said: “No one is buying, no one is looking, no one is asking.

DiBuduo says Allied is not taking on any new coastal varietal growers. “Until we sell our own, we can’t contract to anyone else.”