(Dec. 21) Delays at the beginning of the Chilean grape deal have pushed prices north of $40 for an 18-pound container, more than double the price last year at the same time.

With South Africa also off to a sluggish start, retailers may have to wait until late January to sell grapes on ad.

“There are no grapes in the market — I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mark Greenberg, senior vice president of procurement for Fisher-Capespan Inc., St. Laurent, Quebec, said Dec. 17. “Brazil is pretty much finished, Peru is a virtual no-show, and we’re seeing small volumes from Chile.”

On Dec. 18, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $44-46 for 18-pound containers of bagged perlettes from Chile, up from $20-22 a year ago. For the three years preceding 2006, prices were in the low- to mid-$20s in mid-December.

Those prices probably won’t budge at least through Christmas, Greenberg predicted.

The USDA also reported that through Dec. 15, 46 million pounds of Chilean grapes had been exported to the U.S., down from 302 million pounds last year.

Cool weather set the Chilean deal back about three weeks for Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros. Inc., said Anthony Stetson, vice president of sales.

Supplies for Christmas and New Year’s would be “drastically off,” Stetson said. Importers hope to begin seeing volume shipments by mid-January, with promotions possible by the end of the month, but even that’s not guaranteed, Stetson said.

Chile’s delay was just the latest in a series of events that created what Josh Leichter, grape category manager in the Newark, Del., office of The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, called an “unprecedented” mid-December product drought.

It all started in October, he said, when Brazil, misestimating the size of the late-season California crop, cut its U.S. shipments by 40%. An unfavorable exchange rate and robust demand from Europe also played big roles in that decision.

The California crop proved to be smaller than expected. But the next player in the export grape deal, Peru, was unable to take advantage because of unseasonably cool weather, Leichter said. Finally, delays of up to five weeks in Chile were the icing on the cake, he said.

Leichter also expected volume shipments from Chile to arrive by mid-January, with promotable supplies on hand by the end of the month.