The California table grape season in the San Joaquin Valley had been underway about seven weeks as of mid-August, and should have been a quarter of the way through the harvest.
Yet the crop was acting as if it was closer to the halfway point, as fruit maturity seemed to be running well ahead of historical norms.
The first red variety of the year, Flame Seedless, had been mostly picked by the end of July, with late-summer varieties, including Scarlett Royal, Magenta and Sweet Celebration in full with their season. As for green grapes, the Sugraone harvest was steadily winding down but there was ample supply of varieties that normally are available later in the summer. Only black grapes appeared to be on a normal pattern; Summer Royals all but finished, leaving the market waiting for Autumn Royals to attain adequate sugars.
“There are a lot of varieties maturing all at once, especially for green grapes,” observed Shawn Caldwell of Columbine Vineyards on 17 August. “I’m not sure why, to be honest. But if this keeps up, I don’t see us picking much past the middle of November.”
“For some reason, there’s been very little gap between red varieties this year,” noted Brian Crettol of Jasmine Vineyards. “Flames transitioned to Scarletts and Sweet Celebrations are already going strong. It’s the same with green varieties. I’m thinking this crop will wind down quickly, especially if we get some early rains this fall. I don’t see the industry shipping fruit in January for the Lunar New Year at this point.”
What’s pushing the 2016 table grape deal to a possible early end? For one thing, berry sizing has been problematic so far this season, particularly for Flame Seedless and Sugraone, causing growers to leave an inordinate amount of fruit unpicked. Flames also have had trouble reaching sufficient colour. The root of those problems may be traced back to some volatile weather that hit the San Joaquin Valley late last winter just as vines were beginning to bloom.
“There were a few weeks of erratic weather during the bloom period where daytime temperatures were all over the place,” noted one long-time industry observer. “This made for poor pollinising and has led to the small berry syndrome we’re seeing this year. Only the very best growers – the ‘old-timers’ who still walk their vineyards to check to see what they’ve got to deal with – are able to work with the elements and still come out with a minimum of problems.
"This season should serve notice to the younger generations to get out from behind their desks and get out in the field.”
Despite the spotty yields to date, the California Table Grape Commission’s pre-season estimate of 117.4m cartons (8.6kg) may still be met, simply due to the prolific nature of new table grape varieties planted in the last several years now coming into commercial bearing.
In less than a decade, Scarlett Royal and the white variety Autumn King have emerged to lead the California industry in annual tonnage. With yields well over 2,000 tonnes per acre and sugar levels that keep consumers coming back for more, it’s hardly surprising that these varieties have become a big favourite with the California industry.
“Volume this year probably won’t be any more than the last couple of years, which averaged around 110m cartons,” said one industry veteran. “Still, it’s hard to know just how much fruit we’ll see in a given season with these new varieties.”
This article appears in the September edition of Asiafruit Magazine, out soon.