The California table grape industry projects a crop of about 82.3 million cartons, enough to ensure ample supplies for the holidays. If so, the crop would exceed the 1997 record of 81.8 million (21-pound) cartons and be 7 percent greater than 1999.
Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission in Fresno, says 80-plus million crops are apt to become common as a result of the extended season caused by new acreage of later-ripening varieties on modernized trellising for higher yields.
The seeded variety Red Globe, the seedless Fantasy and Crimson, and other varieties extend the harvest period through November with stock to cover consumption beyond the end of the year.
As the harvest season has lengthened, consumption has risen during Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas. About 60 percent of the crop movement occurs during the fall marketing period.
"Only five years ago we were ending the harvest sooner and didn't always have enough product to carry us into the Christmas holidays," said Nave. "Earlier, only seeded varieties were available late in the season, but now by that time we have as many seedless grapes as seeded." The industry proportions for an entire season are about 75 percent in seedless varieties to 25 percent in seeded.
The table grape industry is comprised of some 600 growers on about 130,000 acres, ranging from the Coachella Valley to Madera County, with acreage concentrated in Kern County.
High quality fruit Fruit quality this season, Nave said, has been exceptionally high, due to good weather conditions and lack of mildew and other pests.
Although the berry sizes of the crop were not particularly large, the taste has been superior and is credited with drawing repeat purchases by consumers across the nation. "We have had extremely good movement and that's a testimony to the quality of the fruit," she said.
Early sales problems However, marketing of the crop, which opened with the Perlette harvest in the Coachella Valley the first week in May, faced hurdles early-on. California grapes competed with not only Mexican grapes but Chilean imports on hand longer than normal.
Chile customarily exports about 30 million boxes to the U.S., and the supply usually is exhausted by the time the new California crop begins. But for unknown reasons, perhaps much as 9 million boxes of Chilean grapes were still in the market pipeline this year as the season began. Prices were low early in the season but later strengthened, and movement has been brisk since the heavier than normal supplies were absorbed.
As the harvest moved beyond 60 percent completion, Nave said the industry expects to ship grapes until February. The volume justifies promotional campaigns drawing on the popularity of table grapes, consumed on a regular basis by 94 percent of U.S. households.
Table grapes are in the top five fresh fruit items and are in the top five or six most profitable items for retailers. "Most of our consumer research shows they have become pretty much a staple," said Nave.
Seventy percent of the crop is consumed domestically and the commission has launched a new promotion campaign for the fall season and a follow-up campaign will focus on the holidays.
Radio commercials, including "tags" identifying cooperating retailers, are being aired across the country in key markets. Radio, Nave said, is an efficient, cost-effective way to reach consumers during the commuting hours. The messages reach more consumers more economically than television commercials used widely by the commission in the past, and radio offers the option of retailer tags.
Joining with retailers, Nave said the commission is also working on a pilot promotion known as "bundling." It features distribution of recipes using table grapes, with all the ingredients available along with grapes in the produce department.
At the same time, sampling of the prepared dishes, such as a chicken and grape salad, is offered in the produce department, and quantities of prepared dishes are sold in the delicatessen department. The commission's initial trials with bundling involves one grocery chain in California and another in Missouri.
"The idea for bundling," Nave explained, "came from consumer research that shows that consumers are really looking for an experience when they are shopping. To the degree we are able to do that, we can motivate more purchases. We are working with chains that want to make the shopping experience pleasant and interesting."
The commission is still putting out the word on research findings about the health benefits from eating grapes. It has contributed $200,000 to research on the subject this year. Among the advantages is resveratrol, a compound found primarily in grapes and thought to prohibit tumor growth. Other phytonutrients in grapes are believed to prohibit arteriosclerosis, diabetes, and cancers.
Eye-catching displays As in the past, the commission's field staff is again encouraging retailers to promote different colors and shapes of varieties in eye-catching displays. Consumer research shows that sales volume increases when multiple varieties are displayed together on produce shelves.
Marketing continues apace with exports to move the remaining 30 percent of the crop. Canada takes about 10 percent and most of the balance goes to Asia, a leading market being Hong Kong, where seeded varieties such as Red Globe, Emperor, and Christmas Rose are established favorites but seedless varieties are gaining in acceptance.
Other key destinations are Mexico, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands. The table grape industry also has its eye on Chinese markets and is promoting in the large coastal population centers of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. These are seen as having potential, even though Chinese table grapes now compete with the California product in Asian markets.
The commission has tapped into the World Wide Web by providing its information to Web sites of food and home publications to reach health- and nutrition-conscious consumers. Nave said the commission is also testing a program to link table grapes with on-line grocery outlets.