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The challenges of the table grape transition: Reliability is king

By John Pandol, Special Projects Director of California-based Pandol Bros.

This column published in the November edition of Vision Fruticola magazine.


It is week 43 and it just rained for 24 hours.  20% of my grapes are still on the vine and 15% in the cold storage. My customers love my grapes but sooner or later the buyer will leave me for the next source. In a perfect world, the last load will leave before the last purchase order arrives. It takes a lot of work, professionalism and some luck to make that happen.   

Buyers talk about the difficulty of ‘the shoulders” of seasons. Sometimes there is overlap and sometime there are supply gaps. Transition dates are always a topic, either one variety to the next or one origin to the next origin. As varieties, post- harvest practices and production areas have changed so have the considerations for the source of grapes at any given time during the year. I remember when Pandol sold its last California grapes in March. Then Atacama & Limari seedless displaced California seeded grapes in late November or early December. Then late California Crimsons took some of that market back. Then Brazil was going to displace late California Thompsons and early Chilean Whites. Within 3 years the honeymoon with Brazilian was over and the market returned to storage Thompson and the new Autumn Kings. Today most of the grapes sold in December are from California. 

Capturing a customer or market used to be about availability. Growers did very extreme things to provoke early harvest to be first to market or to hold grapes in storage for longer just to have more availability than their competitors. As 52 week a year grapes became reality, (and it is a big debate whether that is a good thing or a bad thing), the extreme practices to provide very early or very late grapes no longer paid enough reward to justify the risk. The differentiator became quality. The variety or grower or origin with the best quality was the preferred supplier at any given time. Low quality growers have had to either change or die. Today the difference between the best and the average and the worse grower has never been less.

So, what is the differentiator today? Reliability. Growers who operationally produce a consistent product, know what they will have, know when they will have it, and can perform consistently are the preferred vendors. Period. The sun and the moon, the hot and the cold, the rain and the freeze, the pests and the disease, harvest is late, harvest is early, low yield, too much yield, the labor, the growers, the port, the ships, the trucks…. we all deal with it. But some growers handle it better than other and they are the preferred suppliers to the preferred customers.   

I never understood growers who talked about ‘my market’. “My market” or “My Customer” is the biggest myth in the grape industry. The customer is always right. A grower is only as good as his last delivery. At retail the public either complains or doesn’t buy, and if the store managers have unhappy customers, slow sales or high shrink, the buyer hears about it. The customer doesn’t care about the strike or the freeze or the Panama Canal …. she buys something else or goes to another store. Lost sale.    

Gorbachev asked President Reagan, don’t you trust me? Reagan responded, “Yes. I trust, but I verify”. There are neighbors who claim they are 20% short on crop and other who say they will finish two or three weeks early because the sun and the moon and the…… Really? Are their workers looking for jobs at other farms? Is there a huge pile of unused materials? Have their angry customers called other shippers? Are their angry customers down in South America begging for the first grapes?

Transitions are in the future and require good estimates and forecasting. The better the estimates; the better the business results, not just for sales but for operations, logistics, packaging and cash flow. Transparency is also important. I never understood growers who thought it was a good Idea to tell their salespeople and indirectly their customer to expect X volume only to come up with 2X. Perhaps there are times and places where bluffing works, but in a world where reliability is king, bad information does more damage than good.               

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