Trent Ball gives the annual “State of the Grapes” report during the Washington State Grape Society’s annual meeting in 2014. Ball talked about how Concord prices (in chart noted in red) were down, in contrast to the big crop size (in chart in blue.) (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Trent Ball gives the annual “State of the Grapes” report during the Washington State Grape Society’s annual meeting in 2014. Ball talked about how Concord prices (in chart noted in red) were down, in contrast to the big crop size (in chart noted in blue.) (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Washington State grape growers produced one of the biggest crops on record for both juice and wine grapes in 2014.

For wine grape growers, the long, warm growing season resulted in a near perfect vintage. But many juice grape growers struggled to reach minimum sugar concentrations due to heavy crop loads, and, for those selling on the cash market, prices tumbled to levels not seen in a decade.

For the last ten years, Washington, which is the nation’s leading juice grape producer, has produced a statewide average of around 190,000 tons.

The 2014 crop, which wrapped up harvest in mid-November, is estimated at around 264,000 tons, according to Dr. Trent Ball, who spoke during the Washington State Grape Society’s annual meeting in Grandview in November.

“We had a very warm growing year in Washington and a spectacular fall,” said Ball, a partner in Agri-Business Consultants LLC and director of the viticulture and enology program at Yakima Valley Community College. Ball reports annually on juice and wine grape production and economic trends.

“It was one of the earliest starts for both wine and juice grape harvests, and yields for juice grapes were extremely high, one of the biggest on record,” he said. “The berries just continued to size in the fall and get bigger and bigger.”

Exceptional tonnage

Concord grape production averaged 12.3 tons per acre, up significantly from last year’s 7.7 tons per acre and 8.3 tons per acre in 2012.

Though about 90 percent of Washington’s juice grapes are purple varieties like Concord, about ten percent are the white Niagara variety. Niagaras averaged 17.2 tons per acre in 2014, setting a new state record. The previous record average for Niagara was 14.8 tons per acre. Washington produced an estimated 26,000 tons of Niagara grapes in 2014.

Other juice grape producing regions in the United States also had big crops. New York, the nation’s second largest producer, had a bigger crop than expected, as did Pennsylvania, all which helped push the national Concord crop to around 517,660 tons.

“When you compile the national 2013 and 2014 crops—resulting in around 970,000 tons—it adds up to the largest consecutive totals for many years,” said Ball. The buildup of Concord concentrate inventories depressed cash prices in Washington to around $110 per ton, a dramatic drop from last year’s cash price of $225 per ton and $280 per ton in 2012.

“We knew the cash price would come down, but going from $280 to $110 is a pretty dramatic drop,” he said, adding that cash prices haven’t been that low since 2004 and 2005.

Prices for Concord concentrate (called concentrate 68 Brix) are at $8.50 per gallon in Washington and $10.50 on the East Coast. They, too, are also at their lowest since the mid-2000s.

Three years ago, concentrate was selling for more than $20 per gallon, Ball said. “The negative to having a high concentrate price is that it opens the door for competition from alternative and imported products. Hopefully, this lower price will bring about more use of Concord concentrate.”

He reported that 63.7 million gallons of single-strength juice and concentrate were imported to the United States in 2013, up from 58.9 million gallons in 2012.

For the coming year, Ball expects similar trends of lower cash prices for juice grapes until inventories are reduced. He believes stabilization will return to the concentrate market as high inventories are lowered.

Washington’s wine grape crop was estimated at around 240,000 tons, the largest volume on record. The increased volume is a result of new acreage coming into production. Some 50,000 acres of wine grapes have been planted in Washington, according to industry sources.

National wine sales are up five percent from the same time a year ago, and the industry is still in a growth mode. Final crop numbers for Washington will be released in early 2015.

Struggle for sugar

“The larger-than-anticipated crop did create problems for some growers in meeting minimum quality standards,” said Craig Bardwell of the National Grape Cooperative Association, the juice-processing arm for Welch Foods. “It was a challenging crop and there were a number of rejected loads.”

Keith Oliver, production manager for Olsen Brothers, Inc., Prosser, led a panel discussion about options for managing large Concord crops.

“The big Concord crop came from a lot of high tonnage vineyards that averaged 16 to 18 tons per acre,” he said, adding that one vineyard was reported to produce 24 tons per acre. “A lot of Concords were picked this year, but there were also a lot of grapes not picked because of various constraints such as not meeting minimum sugar requirements of 16° Brix.”

Ryan Schilperoort, Sunnyside grower and custom harvester, said he had sugar issues like many others, though he didn’t have any rejected loads. “It was challenging to put a load together to get across the scales at the processors,” he said.

“I sample before harvest because I want to know which field has the best sugar so I know where to start.”

Schilperoort also shut water off in some blocks—and in one for up to 40 days—to help raise sugar levels. “We lost some tonnage but the sugar went up from mid-14 Brix to over 16.”

Heavy crop loads require every leaf to be working, said Concord grower Tim Grow of Grandview. Although Grow uses a mechanical pruner, he always leaves around five acres to prune by hand. “That way, I know I’ll have a place with better than average sugar.”

Grow uses a blender to mix up samples for testing with a refractometer instead of using free run juice because he believes the blender results in a more accurate number. Additionally, he uses foliar nutrient sprays, especially in heavy-crop years.

Concord growers on the East Coast routinely use thinning to help ripen their fruit. Bardwell said that while thinning works well for Midwest and East Coast growers, he knew of no National Grape cooperative grower-member in Washington that thinned. “But there were some that could have benefitted from the practice.”

Oliver noted that although wine grape growers thin by hand, Concord growers must use a mechanical harvester to knock off berries because of economics. “Concord growers can’t afford the labor to hand thin—especially not at today’s prices.” •