Sonya, a new apple variety that originated in New Zealand, is being grown in North America under a club system.

Otago International LLC, based in Wenatchee, Washington, is the exclusive producer and marketer of Sonya apples in North America. General Manager Steve Fox said plantings will be limited for the next decade to 400 acres in Washington State—the only part of North America where it will be grown—generating a maximum annual production of about 500,000 boxes.

Two more new varieties from the same private breeding program in New Zealand will be released within the next year.

“Increasingly, the growers can’t make a living doing commodity apples on a year in, year out basis,” Fox said. “Our whole goal is to grow our own company and manage production and marketing so the grower is guaranteed income every year, barring a natural disaster. That’s the strategy here. We’re trying to be surgically precise, and it seems to be working very nicely. The retailer response has been excellent, and the consumer response has been excellent. We’re moving ahead cautiously, but with great excitement.”

Sonya, a cross of Royal Gala and standard Red Delicious, is better than either, Fox said. It doesn’t lose its flavor in storage like Gala, it doesn’t have a thick skin like Red Delicious, and it’s sweeter than either. It is a large, typy, bicolored apple that ripens midseason, towards the end of the Red Delicious season. It will need multiple picks.

Fruit produced in North America must meet certain specifications and cannot be packed or sold under any other name.

Willow Drive Nursery is propagating trees for planting in Washington State.

Different philosophy

Otago is selling the fruit to a limited number of premium retailers. Last year, it had a very small quantity available. This season, it had about 18,000 cartons.

Fox said it stands out in the marketplace from other varieties, and he’s marketing it with a slightly different philosophy from most other club apple varieties, positioning it in a medium price range.

“We’re not trying to gouge the retailer or the consumer on the front end of this,” he said.

Some other club varieties have started out at $50 a box, but Fox said prices inevitably slide.

“We’re taking more of a Southern-Hemisphere strategy and going out with a reasonable price—quite a strong price, but not an insanely high price. If you push it too high, the buyer has a commitment to get it down, and you don’t want to get into a sparring thing with the buyer on the front end of this.”

Otago is a partnership of three Yakima-based grower-shippers—Valley Fruit, Congdon Orchards, and Price Cold Storage and Packing Company—and a small group of contract growers.

Sonya is the first commercial apple variety to emerge from the Nevis Fruit Company’s breeding program in New Zealand. It has been patented, and the name has been trademarked in the United States and 50 other countries.

According to information from Nevis, Sonya has a firm texture and was selected primarily for its eating quality, although storage and handling properties, grower friendliness, and general appearance are also important, the company says.

The variety is being grown commercially in New Zealand, Washington State, Europe, and South America. Fox said only about 50 acres have been planted in New Zealand, but that is mainly because of the difficulties that the New Zealand apple industry is experiencing. “They’re just struggling a lot and are very nervous about getting too adventurous.”

International market

Otago International also plays a lead role in international market development for all Nevis apple varieties. More than 30 selections are being tested by licensed growers throughout the United States and Canada.

Fox said each new apple variety that Nevis releases must have exceptional eating quality and be a positive addition to a crowded category. Production of each new variety will be limited, and all aspects of market placement and retail development will be closely managed.

One of the next scheduled releases is a sweet apple with a lighter, more old-fashioned flavor than Sonya. The other is a tart, crisp apple that Fox said looks like a giant Bing cherry with a snow-white interior. It has a refreshing flavor, he said. “It’s a different kind of tart. It’s balanced, but it has a zip to it.”