Excellent quality and problems with rival fruit in Florida and California should equal continued strong demand for Chilean grapes.

Strong demand during the Brazilian and Peruvian import grape seasons paved the way for Chile, which has continued the trend, said Josh Leichter, director of the grape category in the Newark, Del., office of Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group.

“Demand has been very good,” Leichter said in early January. “It’s a function of good quality, and of retailers realizing what grapes represent in sales dollars to the produce department.”

Oppenheimer is seeing an increase in its clamshell and contract business this season, Leichter said.

Looking ahead, inclement weather in Florida and California could provide additional opportunities for Chilean grapes if strawberry volumes are lower, Leichter said.

Fruit was “sailing out of the warehouse” in early January for Pandol Bros. Inc., Delano, Calif., said Dave Sudduth, the company’s director of global operations.

John Pandol, the company’s director of special projects, said there were initially fears of an overlap between the California and Chilean deals.

That turned out to be far from the case, with what Pandol called an “orderly to borderline scarce” transition, with California almost completely finished right after Christmas.

The cold weather in Florida and rain in California promised to cut not only berry but also navel volumes, opening the window wider for Chilean grapes, Pandol said.

Craig Uchizono, vice president of Southern Hemisphere for Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles, also reported a good start to the Chilean deal and high expectations for the remainder of the season.

“Demand is good and pricing is strong,” he said. “Our hope is the market will sustain itself and the market will continue throughout the season.”

Mark Lewis, executive vice president of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet International LLC, also anticipated brisk movement in 2011.

“Demand is good,” he said. “Quality has been good, and that always helps demand and, ultimately, prices.”

Seald Sweet, which only began importing Chilean grapes in 2008-09, expects to double its volumes this season, Lewis said.

Clamshell sales continue to be strong among club store buyers, but the majority of Chilean grapes imported by Seald Sweet will be sold in bags, he said.

“This package has really gained universal consumer acceptance,” Lewis said.

Complicating the deal, as usual, Lewis said, will be the U.S. marketing order that prohibits the import of all Chilean grapes not graded U.S. 1 after April 10.

Before 2009, non-U.S. 1 Chilean grapes had been allowed in through April 20.

“Changing the marketing order to April 10 has really put pressure on Chilean exporters,” Lewis said. “If it had stayed at April 20, I think most Chileans would have been able to meet the date and been satisfied.”

The priority, he said, is to get all green grapes shipped by the target date. The second priority is crimsons, though it’s impossible to get all of them shipped by April 10.

“Last year almost two million (boxes of) grapes arrived after the order,” Lewis said. “Like many government programs, the unintended consequence is usually disappointing. In this case, the government wanted Chilean fruit out of the way before Coachella fruit harvested. What they got was just the opposite.”

Two million was a record number, and Lewis said 2011 should be no different, particularly since Easter, which falls on April 24, is late this year.

“That (the late Easter) will create even more interest to ship beyond the marketing order,” he said.