(April 13, 3:55 p.m.) California table grape grower-shippers have a new standard to shoot for as they prepare for the upcoming 2009 season.

Final figures into the Fresno, Calif.-based California Table Grape Commission show the industry shipped a record 99.1 million cartons of grapes in 2008. The previous record, from 2005, was 97.4 million cartons.

“The increase in exports has allowed volume to grow without creating a surplus of grapes,” said Kathleen Nave, president of the commission.

The value of last year’s California table grape deal was $1.2 billion, she said, and sales of table grapes have increased at an average annual rate of 6.7% since 2003.

Forty percent of the 2008 volume went to export markets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest figures show nearly 39 million cartons of table grapes, valued at $608 million, were sent to foreign buyers.

The commission’s global marketing campaign played a key role in that growth. Susan Day, the commission’s vice president of international marketing, pointed to Indonesian retail chain AlfaMart as an example of the campaign’s success. The chain reported sales of California grapes increased 68% in 2008, Day said, after commission representatives trained AlfaMart’s staff on the best ways to handle, display, promote and sell the grapes.

“The core of our export marketing program is retailer promotions,” Day said. “Targeting over 40 countries in 2008, the program is a proven motivator to increase California grape exports worldwide.”

The fruit and the state of origin have a positive ring with domestic consumers, too.

“Americans are interested in where their food comes from, and California’s tradition of supplying the finest grapes in the world is an enormous benefit for keeping demand high,” Nave said.

The commission’s latest research shows that 93% of U.S. consumers prefer California grapes over grapes from all other growing regions and countries, she said.

The eating experience is not the only attraction of table grapes. Research has shown that grapes are a natural source of beneficial antioxidants, resveratrol and flavonoids, which have been shown to have significant benefits for human health, Nave said, and consumers are taking advantage of those benefits as they seek healthier lifestyles.

The 2009 California table grape season is scheduled to begin in May with the Coachella Valley harvest. Picking will move into the San Joaquin Valley in June.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s production estimate for the coming season will not be released until late June or early July.