Opportunities bubbling for Champagne grape exports
Not to be confused with the sparkling wine, Champagne grapes have made a comeback over the last decade in California in response to niche demand for smaller fruit with a sweet and distinct flavor.
Simonian Fruit Company has 20 acres dedicated to the variety, which is grown differently to table grapes and typically fetches higher prices too.
“I would say it’s almost twice as expensive as regular table grapes at the grocery or retail level,” says vice president of sales and marketing, Jeff Simonian.
But it’s a price some are willing to pay for a real seasonal item in a market loaded with year-round produce.
“It’s not a wine grape. It originally was a raisin grape and specifically the use was for the baking industry because it’s a smaller berry grape. So when it’s dried it’s real small,” the grower said.
“We sell into a lot of areas where there’s a strong Asian population, and now foodies or people who are into trying different fruits and vegetables have grown to like this kind of product.
“The market is growing and it really seems to be a mainstream product now.”
He says the variety is harvested from July to late August or September, depending on the season.
For the moment Simonian is mostly selling the variety on the U.S. West Coast and Canada, and there is some distribution on the U.S. East Coast.
“It’s not a big crop for us compared to the other crops that we handle. Typically a pack is a one-pound clamshell and there are maybe three or four bunches in a clamshell.
“Typically in the stores they’ll sell them for anywhere from US$3-5 for a pound, where in California for typical table grapes you can see them for US$1 a pound or US$2-3 on the East Coast.”
The executive expects export opportunities into Asia this year, most likely in Malaysia first.
“We do quite a bit of export sales as well for pomegranates so some of our partners in Southeast Asia are interested as well,” he says.
“So it’s the Southeast Asian countries we’re targeting like Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines. They’re importing a lot of Californian grapes already. They’re familiar with the quality and the type of products.”
As the grape has a short shelf life any export venture would likely be an airfreight deal with small trial volumes to start with.
So will this increased spread mean more acres planted at Simonian?
“I don’t know, we’ll see. Right now we’re keeping the supply kind of closed – we’re packing a lot of it up, storing it and selling off inventory.
“We know our weekly flow, we’re harvesting as orders go, so we’re keeping the product real fresh. And so if we were really to expand, that would be putting a lot of it in storage.”
Simonian also grows small quantities of table grapes, but what combines best with the Champagne grape deal is what he refers to as a “natural” Thompson Seedless.
“It’s similar to a wine grape packed fresh,” he says.
“We harvest it a little bit later than the Champagne, and they go along with it. So a buyer might take two pallets of Champagne and a pallet of natural Thompsons with it.
He highlights that like the Champagne grapes, the natural Thompsons are grown without the cultural practices used on table grapes.
“With a Thompson table grape you girdle the vines, you get all the nutrients flowing up to the vine, you spray it with gyberillic acid, you drop bunches and stuff to make it large.
“This is just natural size – it’s like a Thompson that would be used for wine making, and they’re sold in a fresh pack as well.”
The product will be on show at the upcoming Fresno Food Expo on July 27-28.
“It’s been a key event for us because there are a lot of local buyers in the supply chain, and also more of the regional ones are coming from outside California as well.
“So it’s allowed us to display our product and it’s almost a better way to communicate to the trade – they can see the product, they can taste it.”
“Excellent” season ahead for stonefruit
While Champagne grapes and natural Thompsons might be something of a profitable novelty, stonefruit is Simonian’s bread and butter during the summer season.
“We’ve been in the stonefruit two or three weeks now and so far the quality of the fruit has been excellent,” he says.
“The sizing is maybe down on some varieties more than we would like – but with the nice cold winter and the ample rain we’ve had this past winter, it looks like it’s going to be an excellent season.
“The pricing has been good so far, the market is US$20-30 dollar range – it’s maybe a dollar or two above normal for this time period. We’re optimistic that it’s going to be a good market this season.”