Chilean grapes need momentum to drive season, says Fisher Capespan exec

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Chilean grapes need momentum to drive season, says Fisher Capespan exec

With lower yields than their southern Chilean compatriots, Copiapó table grape growers need relatively better prices to ensure profitability, but a delicate balance is needed to keep rotation constant with U.S. retailers. Fisher Capespan chief operating officer (COO) Mark Greenberg recently visited the South American country to make plans for the upcoming procurement season, telling about the need for sales momentum and how new Californian varieties haven't yet posed a real threat to Brazilian, Peruvian and Chilean growers.

Fisher Capespan COO Mark Greenberg

There have been a lot more North American executives visiting Chile's vineyards in recent weeks, which is testament to the inextricable link between the country's farms and winter grape availability in supermarkets from Miami through to Vancouver.

Greenberg is one of them and was impressed with what he saw, although anything could change between now and January.

"Everyone is always optimistic now, the fruit always looks good at the start of December and there are never any problems around this time. We’ll wait and see," he said.

"I think this year because of the freeze and snow in Copiapó in early spring or late winter, and that water is also a major issue, a lot of table grape acreage in the region is not being cultivated.

"Mining companies are buying up agricultural land for the purpose of gaining water rights, which is pulling more fruit out of Copiapó so I think there’s an expectation that early volumes out of Chile to North America are going to be comparatively light. We're not going to see the heavy volumes that we’ve seen in the past in late December and January, so grower expectations for pricing are quite high."

But how high is too high?

Greenberg was reluctant to say what he believed the price of table grapes ought to be come January for northern Chilean exporters, preferring instead to emphasize his company's role in getting the best deal for both growers and retailers.

"What we need to do is make sure the excitement about potentially very high prices in the early season doesn’t stop the grape industry from generating momentum that will carry it through those weeks in the year, and they will come when the market is heavily loaded with fruit.

"Even if Chile keeps its shipping loads to the U.S. flat or even if it declines this year, there are still weeks when a lot of fruit arrives and we need momentum to carry it through to April.

"We need to get fruit in and sell at a price that reflects its scarcity, or absence of scarcity, and allows it to clear through the market in an orderly fashion and not languish in the market - we don't want a situation where no momentum is generated for when the big volumes arrive."

Addressing overlap concerns

There have been many voices within the industry about what effect the new and increasingly popular Californian proprietary grape varieties will have on early South American supply through tightening market windows.

Produce market consultant Dick Spezzano told the new varieties would likely affect Chilean growers, while the country's FreshAtacama early grape campaign was probably related to the competitive threat the new Californian grapes posed.

"Grapes have been a strong category in the U.S. with all the new varieties - new wonderful varieties - and it's going to hurt Chile on the early deal because they're picking in October," he said.

"It's like what happened in the Coachella Valley. When the industry started you had no other option but to buy from there and the variety they had was not great, the Perlette variety, and they were then pushed out by Thompsons and Superiors.

"Well, Chile's first variety is the Perlettes, so what will happen is the growers are going to have to push the Perlettes out and put in Thompsons, and if that means you have to escape that Copiapo area, or certain parts of it, that’s the way it’s going to be."

Despite the existence of new varieties, Greenberg believed Brazil, Peru and northern Chile would continue to play an important role in bridging the gap between Californian production and the bulk of Chile's arrivals in North America.

"I don't think the new varieties pose a threat to Chile, they still have to prove themselves and while they've gained some traction in chain stores, they're still young varieties," he said.

"What really has been happening is the late table grapes are there, but a lot of the Thompsons which had been marginal players in the market had been pulled out in favor of these late varieties. So we do have additional fruit that is making an impact on the market, it is giving chain stores options that they didn’t have in the past, but it’s a long way from making anyone irrelevant.

"The death of the Brazilian white seedless program in North America has not happened. It's still a desirable and valuable product and early Chilean grapes will also remain highly valuable and sought after; it's just more table grapes in the system, perhaps a more stable pricing structure until we move into bigger volumes from Chile, which I’m sure will come in the first or second week of January."

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