For table grape growers, it’s both an exciting and daunting time to be in the industry: consolidation and corporate farming are replacing multigenerational family farms; old vineyards are being replaced with new varieties; and innovations in packaging are producing opportunities and challenges for retailers. What’s more, the holy grail of grape growing—extending the season—is finally becoming a reality as new varieties and growing practices take hold. Read on to stay current with the fast-paced evolution of this extraordinary fruit segment.
For decades, Thompson Seedless and Red Flame were the high-volume varieties consumers came to expect in grocery stores. But with increased imports from Mexico and Chile extending availability, California growers have sought ways to lengthen the domestic season with new varieties that would ship earlier in the spring and later in fall. Additionally, nurseries and root stock suppliers have been looking for varieties with better size and flavor while requiring less labor and fewer resources.
“It takes about three years to determine if a new variety will thrive,” says Mimi Dorsey, vice president of marketing and director of export sales for Giumarra Vineyards Corporation in Bakersfield. Better yet, she notes, “there are now a number of new varieties that have proven themselves around the world, like the Sweeties and Passion Fire.”
Passion Fire is an early red grape, available at the beginning of July, and Sweeties are a popular mid-season grape that are elongated and crunchy. Sugar Drop is an early, very sweet green grape, currently in limited production. All are part of Giumarra’s ARRA breeding program, in operation since the 1990s, which licenses new cultivars for worldwide use.
Though breed, soil, and climate all influence the quality of table grapes, cultural practices are an essential element as well according to Jared Lane, vice president at Grapeman Farms LP, also in Bakersfield. “Each variety performs differently in different areas, but so much depends on who is doing the cultivating,” Lane says. In his opinion, “What matters is how nutrients and fungicides are applied to vines, along with skillful pruning, leafing, and thinning.”
The plethora of new varieties has raised the bar for consumer satisfaction too. Recent innovators include the well named Cotton Candy grapes, for example, that may not be as cosmetically desirable but are renowned for their aroma and distinctive sweet taste.
Rob Spinelli, sales manager for Anthony Vineyards, Inc. in Bakersfield, comments, “Today there are more choices, especially in the fall. Newer varieties such as Sweet Sapphire, Timco, Jack’s Salute, Sweet Celebration, Autumn Kings, and Allison deliver better size and flavor.” Another change involves storage. “We no longer store during October and November—we harvest and ship fresh.”