Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor
Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor

HERMOSILLO, Mexico — Running from May through early/mid-July, Mexico’s grape exporters have a run-and-gun kind of season.

Chile’s grape season often establishes the market Mexican grapes will enter, and this year’s rocky season (at times) in Chile could mean brisk sales for Mexican fruit, several growers said April 25-26 during the annual Sonora Spring Summit, hosted by the Mexican table grape producers association, AALPUM.

Quality problems with some Chilean fruit have lead to buyer headaches and rejected loads. Importers say Mexican grapes should be entering the pipeline with good timing and retailers looking to put their efforts into selling a new crop.

John Pandol, special projects director for Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros., said table grapes are kind of like wine grapes. Sometimes you get a vintage year with exceptional quality, sometimes you don’t.  

State of the grape

David Marguleas was among the roster of presenters at the summit April 26, and the Sun World International executive vice president laid out some developments in the global grape market.

The good news: The worldwide grape supply weighs in at 1.7 billion 19-pound cartons, Marguleas said.

More good news: The market is growing too, Marguleas said, at about 3% to 4% per year, or around 50 million cartons.

For a little perspective, consider that California’s record season last year was 101 million boxes and Mexico’s projected volume this season is 17 million cartons.

Marguleas said China’s production accounts for 40% of the world grape market but they don’t export — yet.

India and Turkey also are waiting in the wings of the grape export market but may enter soon, he said.

While North American producers may cast a wary eye toward competition from around the globe, Marguleas credited year-round supplies closing seasonal windows among the reasons for continued growth in consumer grape demand.

Healthful eating trends benefit grape sales too, with more than three-quarters of U.S. households reporting they purchase grapes, he said. The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2013 consumer survey found 70% of households buy grapes.

New marketing channels, whether it be venues (stores like Target, drugstores and convenience stores) or via packaging (high-graphic pouch bags that offer better on-pack messaging taking grapes “beyond the clamshell”) play a role as well, Marguleas said.

The fruit itself is helping drive sales growth, with new seedless varieties gaining favor among Mexico’s growers and other players in the U.S. market.

“Proprietary branded varieties help set growers apart,” he said, citing black seedless varieties’ (such as Bakersfield, Calif.-based Sun World’s Midnight Beauty) rise from 2% to 9% of the U.S. market in recent years.

Black grapes have enjoyed a 50% growth rate in Sonora over the past season. New proprietary grape varieties make up 1% to 2% of Mexico’s volume, Marguleas said.

Among U.S. export partners, 1% to 2% of Chile’s crop and a little more than a quarter of South Africa’s crop is new proprietary varieties, he said. California leads the pack at 28%.

Border blues

Long lines leading to the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, Ariz., have been a concern for years for fresh produce importers, and the threat of so-called sequestration federal budgetary cuts caused concern among importers.

So far, their fears have proved unfounded, and inspection staffing at the port has avoided furloughs.

Port director Guadalupe Ramirez told grape summit attendees the sequester debate might even turn out to be a good thing.

“I think the sequestration has brought a lot of focus on having more people in blue uniforms,” he said, referring to funding for blue-uniformed inspectors as opposed to green-uniformed Border Patrol agents.