BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Every year, grower-packer-shippers in the San Joaquin Valley play a waiting game, watching the Mexican and Coachella Valley table grape harvest and speculating before the deal moves north.

This year, the harvest in the southern areas started off slower than usual but eventually picked up.

The Mexican crop appears to be in the range of 16 million to 17 million 18-pound boxes, said Ron Wikum, table grape category manager for Bravante Produce, Reedley, which ships its grapes under the Sunkist label.

Coachella’s crop is expected to be about 7 million boxes, he said.

“How that harvest goes off and how it finishes is going to have more effect on the San Joaquin than anything else,” Wikum said.

John Giumarra Jr., vice president of Giumarra Vineyards Corp., Bakersfield, agreed.

“If there’s a lot of Coachella grapes on the marketplace when the San Joaquin Valley begins, the prices would be on the lower side,” he said.

“If the Coachella Valley finishes up by the time the San Joaquin begins, then the prices will be higher. Every year is different.”

The southern San Joaquin Valley crop appears to be maturing on a more seasonal average and is ahead of late-starting 2010 and 2011 by about a week, several grower-shippers said.

In late May, Wikum said the San Joaquin crop appeared only a few days behind a typical start, and he wasn’t complaining.

“There’s nothing wrong with letting Mexico and Coachella get out of the way,” he said.

Last year, Coachella and Mexico finished on schedule, leaving a week to 10-day gap in the market before Arvin began shipping grapes.

“This year I don’t see that,” said George Matoian, salesman for Visalia Produce Sales Inc., Kingsburg.

“Compared to last year, we’re about eight to 10 days earlier.”

Gordon Robertson, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Sun World International LLC, said he’s excited about the Coachella crop.

“We feel very good about the quality of the product and the packs that we’re putting out,” he said.

The Superior Seedless, for example, often rated higher than the grade standards, Robertson said.

“Flame seedless have been solid and the product is moving well, and the Midnight Beauty crop has excellent quality and sizing,” he said.

For Castle Rock Vineyards, Delano, the Coachella deal is a small but important part of their overall business.

“We do have some of our regular customers that will begin with us in Coachella and continue with us in Arvin and Delano,” Jim Llano, sales manager, said.

“It’s a way to get some of the major players in with us.”

Castle Rock Vineyards planned to start in Coachella the last week in May and run for about five weeks before transitioning to the Arvin area of the south San Joaquin Valley in early to mid-July.

Over the years, Castle Rock Vineyards has made changes in its Coachella Valley operation, including packaging and varieties.

It no longer ships perlettes, a green variety that once was a Coachella Valley mainstay. The season starts with flame seedless, followed by sugraones, summer royals, thompson seedless, and, finally, scarlet royals.

Although thompsons are still a significant variety for Castle Rock Vineyards, Llano said the operation is transitioning more to sugraones, another green variety.