There seems to be no let up in the trend towards larger volumes of grapes. Growers across the nation produced a record grape crop last year, including those in Washington State.
"In 2005, you have produced more grapes than ever thought possible," Dr. Raymond Folwell, Washington State University agricultural economist, said to wine and juice grape growers attending the annual meeting of the Washington State Grape Society. "In 2005, there was in excess of 430,000 tons of all types of grapes produced in Washington, which set an all-time record."
Mother Nature treated nearly all grape growers in the nation favorably, he added. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 7.1 million tons of grapes were produced, with 6.2 million coming from California.
It was high tonnage and not increased acreage that led to the record Concord crop in Washington. Folwell predicted the Concord crop will be 280,000 tons-and that was without harvesting the entire crop.
"Not all Concords were harvested, primarily because of space considerations. The 2005 crop pushed the state’s processing capacity to the limit," he said. Some processors put product in drums when they ran out of tank space. Many growers were not allowed to bring in extra loads because the processors ran out of room.
Overall quality for the Concord crop was very good, he said, noting that the average Brix level was 16.0, with acceptable color and acid levels. Yields per acre averaged 11.4 tons, with some vineyards exceeding 12 tons to the acre. Concord acreage in Washington has remained stable the last decade, hovering near 25,000 acres. Replacement vines have been the only Concord plantings in recent years.
Concord vines are prone to alternate bearing, which played a factor in the high tonnage. Average Washington yields in 2004 were less than 6 tons per acre.
East Coast Concord growers produced at least a third more than last year, Folwell said, bringing the total U.S. Concord crop to an estimated 638,000 tons-some 288,000 tons more than last year.
It’s no surprise that Concord concentrate prices-$7.20 per gallon-are at their lowest, along with cash prices paid to growers. With the large Concord crop, the cash price dropped to $100 per ton during harvest. "That’s at the same level as we were in the mid-1980s when we had record-sized crops. We’re almost back in the same situation. When production goes up, prices go down."
To improve the outlook for Concord growers, Folwell encouraged the industry to recapture buyers that were lost to California concentrate several years ago. "The current concentrate price of $7.20 per gallon compares favorably with the $8 or more per gallon price for California red grape concentrate. You need to revisit old customers and revitalize marketing efforts to get back some market the industry lost."
He also suggested that the processing industry renew marketing efforts that tout the health benefits of Concord juice. Research has shown that Concord juice contains important antioxidants and has many of the same benefits as red wine, but without the alcohol. Sales of juice increased several years ago when the health benefits of Concord juice were first publicized.
Wine grape production in Washington also reached a new all-time high in 2005, reaching about 125,000 tons-or about 8 percent more than the previous record crop in 2002, according to figures compiled by Folwell.
In early December, the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers released its 2005 crush estimate at 116,760 tons.
He estimated that 200 to 250 acres were not harvested, likely a result of lower than desired sugar levels in some red varieties. "There is little doubt that the record crop in 2005 was held in check as a direct result of the emphasis the industry puts on holding down yields in order to produce the quality of fruit needed to make premium table wines."
He believes that the industry still has capacity to produce much larger wine grape crops. Industry officials peg state wine grape acreage at more than 30,000 acres, with some acres still coming into production.
Determining a cash price for wine grapes is difficult, he said, because most grapes are sold by contract. Most red varieties are still in demand and averaged $1,125 per ton, with white varieties averaging $790. Both prices are slightly higher than the average prices last year.