The USDA's first table grape storage report of the season has pegged inventories considerably lower than in previous years.
According to Friday's Western Fruit Report Grape Cold Storage Summary, on Sept. 15 there were 7.9m boxes. This figure is down 27% on last year's 10.8m boxes.
In 2017 and 2016, the Sept. 15 storage numbers were 8.5m and 9.2m boxes, respectively.
The biggest year-on-year changes include Scarlet Royal (down 41% at 2.5m) and the 'other white' category (down 35% at 1.8m). The 'other black' category is also 46% lower at around 400,000 boxes.
The California Table Grape Commission in June forecast the 2019 crop to be lighter than last year. It estimated production would end up around 112.4m boxes compared to last year's 116.2m.
But in percentage terms, the lower initial storage numbers this year are much lower.
What could be behind the numbers?
According to John Pandol, special projects director of California-based Pandol Bros., there could be numerous reasons behind the low inventories.
"As we know, the 50,000 hectares of table grapes in California change at least 5% in varieties and respond to changes in management, marketing and political risk factors," he said.
"As in the last few years, grapes harvested in the first third of the season have reduced, while mid- and late-season varieties have increased. This is similar to what is observed in Mexico, Ica [in Southern Peru] and Chile."
In addition, other hectarage in California has been removed, replaced or abandoned as some players exit the production business; this hectarage has also largely been earlier-season grapes.
Another potential factor is the increasing importance of freshness as a driver of table grape sales.
"Both last year and this year, the market is punishing older grapes," Pandol said.
"Last year California experienced sales prices of grapes below the variable cost of harvest and even negative sales from consignments and outright dumps from cold storages - similar to the late Mexico season and Chile over the last few seasons."
Most notably, he said the 'other black' category is down because of this. Growers are holding volume on the vine longer for fresh harvest as opposed to holding in cold storage.
In this line, voluntary USDA shipping volume reports show equal or greater shipments year-on-year for the last several weeks.
"Ship fresh or not at all. The unknown is, what happens toward the end of the season?" he said.
There has been speculation that the lower inventories could be good news for Peru and Chile. But with lots of time to go before the South American seasons get fully underway, that remains to be seen.