A combination of lower prices, heavy promotions, a large government purchase, and aggressive diversion into non-fresh processing channels has helped to move some of the highest levels of inventories ever seen in October and November.
The situation resulted largely from a bumper California table grape crop - which is expected to end up at around 115 million cartons - along with a later harvest.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grape stock report dated Jan. 3 showed that as of Dec. 31 there were 1.5 million boxes of grapes in storage. This figure is down from 10.7 million on Nov. 30, and from 18.1 million boxes on Oct. 31 - the latter of which was 33% higher than the previous two season.
John Pandol of California-based table grape grower-marketer Pandol Bros. said that although the USDA had not produced a storage report for the end of December in many years, the figure of 1.5 million boxes was within the normal range for that period.
He said that typically 2-3% of the California crop remains to be shipped at the start of every year, and given that the true storage figure will be higher as not all companies report their numbers to the USDA, the inventory volume was not unusual.
What is remarkable, however, is the sheer volume that has been moved through and the market over the last few weeks.
"There is no question that growers were realizing that this would require some exceptional circumstances to move the volume," he said.
He said that over the entire 2018 season the industry had moved a much larger supplies than last year in a shorter time, and even with steep tariffs implemented on U.S. grapes in the Chinese market, which led to the USDA purchasing almost half a million boxes of grapes last year as part of its tariff mitigation program.
Also helping to move the volume was pricing - which Pandol said growers had reported to be as much as 20% lower than last year - as well as record volumes of fruit being sold to the processing industry and other non-fresh channels and significant retail support.
As for the concerned South American grape exporters, he said the market outlook for January and February was now much improved from what it was in October, which the transition only running around a week and a half later than normal.