Suppliers expect Chilean grapes to be down by about 10%, and uncertainty still remains surrounding the potential effect of El Niño in the southern growing regions.

Delays of up to 15 days are affecting grapes in the north, where spring freezes in regions III, IV and V have damaged up to 40% of some crops. Lower-than-normal temperatures in the central and south of the country are resulting in smaller grapes and fewer bunches.

“I thing that it will be a season of fruit with very good quality,” said Rodrigo Echeverria, chairman of Fedefruta, the Santiago-based Chilean fruit growers group.

“At the beginning, it will be a little light and delayed because of the spring weather delay, but we are calm and believe there will be a recovery in the final stages.”

Tom Tjerandsen, marketing manager for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, Sonoma, Calif., agreed that the problem is more associated with the early varieties, which do not account for a significant portion of the total grapes from Chile.

“We’re still expecting to have a full complement of grapes arriving in North America that should approach last year’s total,” he said.

Tjerandsen said that last year thompson seedless accounted for 16 million boxes; plain seedless, 14 million; crimson seedless, 12 million; sugraone, 5 million; and red globes, 2 million.

“Some of the importers say as many as 7 million boxes have been lost to freeze,” he said, noting that would drop imports to near 2008 levels of about 51 million boxes.

Nonetheless, there are still worries coming into the season.

“There are concerns about the weather, concerns about prices, concerns about the extent to which the market will continue to increase sales,” he said.

Brian Schiro, grape category manager for Jac Vandenberg Inc., Yonkers, N.Y., said he is confident volumes will start to increase in January, and he said he is more concerned with the impact of the economy and unemployment rate on consumer habits.

“We feel that grapes are sheltered by this a little bit,” he said. “I think the outlook is pretty good for grapes in general.”

Schiro also said he is concerned about inconsistent sizing that resulted from uneven flowering in the springtime. The drawback also makes harvesting more labor intensive because pickers are required to make several passes through vineyards.

“The market itself is a good indicator that this season is struggling to get started,” said Craig Uchizono, vice president of Southern Hemisphere for the Giumarra Cos, Los Angeles, Calif.

“Volumes do look to be down in the beginning of the season. I don’t think there will be any normality until Santiago south. We do anticipate to see nice fruit and more of a steady flow to markets,” he said.

December saw exceptionally high prices for grapes because of shortages in California and Brazil and delays in the early Chile crop.

Manuel Jose Alcaino, president of Decofrut, Santiago, said the most affected areas are region III and IV, with sugraone grapes most affected.

“As high volumes of Chilean grapes arrive into the U.S., the prices will start to balance out in a sounder situation,” he said. “Selling grapes at $45 a box is a tremendous opportunity, but the American market is not prepared to pay such prices with the amount of volumes Chile intends to ship into the U.S.”

Josh Leichter, director of the grape category in the Newark, Del., office of Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group, said there is definitely a delayed start and lower bunch counts on vines from the north of the country.

“There will still be promotable volumes of grapes from Chile once we get into February, March and the end of January,” he said. “There are very few areas that were affected with a total loss. The more likely effect is a delay and reduced bunch counts.”

Omar Abu-Ghazaleh, imports manager for Pacific Trellis Fruit LLC, Reedley, Calif., noted that volumes are down significantly in the San Felipe region, but will not affect volumes of white grapes.

He added he does not anticipate a sharp spike in prices as occurred last year.

“We see a more snug, more even, more active market, but we don’t see any more spikes,” he said.

Alcaino expects perhaps a two day delay in picking in the southern region, which thus far has not suffered severe weather and may see a weakened El Niño effect.

“The problems in the south have just been related to cool weather, which doesn’t really substantially affect the quality of the grapes. In fact, it enhances it,” Tjerandsen said.

“It provides more growing time, which increases the brix level as fruit is held on the stem. It tends to develop higher sugars.”

If weather in the southern areas remains compliant, suppliers expect high quality, promotable volumes of Chilean grapes.

“There are going to be grapes from Chile and there are going to be opportunities to promote them even if the weather has had some effect,” Tjerandsen said. “More of the effect is that you lose bunches, but the bunches that you still have in the end are generally of good quality.”

Tjerandsen explained that retailers have discovered that there is a seamless 12-month supply of many key fruits from Chile, and they can stock grapes all year long.

“Grocery store sales are increasing because the away-from-home sector is experiencing modest declines,” Tjerandsen said, referring to the recession’s effect on consumer food service purchases.

“We are also seeing a tremendous growth in foodservice.”

Tjerandsen said the organization is providing suggestions to chefs and grapes are appearing more often in buffet lines and with diced fruit.

Colleges and universities needing to feed tens of thousands of students each day are also looking for new ways to improve the health and nutrition of their student base, Tjerandsen added.