Concord yields varied widely last year, ranging from no crop to 20 tons per acre.

Concord yields varied widely last year, ranging from no crop to 20 tons per acre.

Suphasuk Pradubsuk

Washington State’s juice and wine grape crop will likely be the smallest since 2005 for wine grapes and 2004 for juice grapes, reports agricultural economist Trent Ball. Grapes got a double hit this past season—cold ­temperatures during Thanksgiving 2010, that damaged vines and reduced yields, followed by an unseasonably cool summer that made ripening ­difficult in some locations.

Ball, who heads Yakima Valley Community College’s vineyard and winery technology program, gave a snapshot view and forecast of the state’s grape economy during the annual meeting of the Washington State Grape Society in November.

The state’s 2011 Concord grape crop is estimated at 162,700 tons (including 10,650 tons of organic), down from 165,000 tons produced in 2010. Washington’s five-year ­production average is 194,000 tons.

“Late, late, late is how to describe Washington’s grape crop last year,” said Ball, adding that small amounts of fruit were still being delivered to juice processors as of November 17. “Growers had crazy yield variances that ranged from no production to high yields of 15 to 20 tons per acre.”

Bud break last spring was late, but the weather was good during fruit set, and the long fall allowed berries to grow large. Though last year’s crop was short, quality was high, with large berries and good color. Average Brix for the crop was 17°. Some Concord growers had larger than expected crop loads and struggled to reach minimum sugar levels.

Ball estimated that the average cash price for Concord grapes in 2011 was $250 per ton, the highest reported in the past decade. Concord concentrate prices are high as well, averaging $20 per gallon for 68° Brix. Washington is the nation’s leading Concord producer and typically produces about half of the nation’s Concord grapes.

New York and Pennsylvania, the next most important Concord producing states, received damaging rains during September that resulted in grapes with high sugars and low acids. Crop size for the two states was above average at around 115,000 tons, according to Ball. Michigan, a smaller player in the Concord world, produced 55,000 tons last year—a 30 percent increase from past years—but the crop had low sugars, averaging only 16° Brix.

Since 1999, grape juice imports have increased each year, hitting a peak of 80.5 million gallons in 2007, then dropping to around 50 million gallons. Argentina accounts for nearly 70 percent of the volume of imported grape juice, mostly white juice.

But imports have stepped up this year, Ball said. By August 2011, grape juice imports had already reached the level of 2008, when 65 million gallons were imported, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

In looking at the Concord future, Ball said, “Washington growers were set up for a big crop in 2011, but the Thanksgiving freeze changed all that. Next year’s production will depend on the variances of yield within individual vineyards; 2012 will ­certainly be very interesting.” Concords are prone to alternate bearing, but the past two years were very similar in total yields. He points out that New York is set up for a big crop next year.

Washington State acreage is stable at around 21,000 acres.

The high $250 per ton cash price in Washington is at a point where, based on past trends, Ball believes it will probably start to come back down.

And he noted that high concentrate prices are not always a good thing. “The high price means that manufacturers will do more blending and import more to get around the high price. Blending can be damaging because it can dilute and blend out the Concord flavor.”

Wine grapes

Production numbers for Washington’s 2011 wine grape crop have yet to be released, Ball said, but the crop was estimated in late summer by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers to be around 135,000 tons, which would be 15 percent less than the previous year.

“This will be the first time in many years that we’ll see a decrease in wine grape production in ­Washington,” he said. Wine grape vineyards are more susceptible to cold temperatures than Concords, and many of the state’s vineyards were severely damaged in the 2010 Thanksgiving freeze and had almost no crop for 2011. Powdery mildew was also a problem for many growers.

California’s wine grape production for 2011 has been estimated to be around 3.3 million tons.

Overall, the wine market looks to be rebounding from its low point in 2008, Ball said, noting that sales of wine bottles in the $20 and above range are growing again and posted an increase of around 25 ­percent last summer compared with the previous year. “That’s good news for Washington’s wine industry because our growers tend to produce grapes used in premium wines.”

But growers should keep the sales data in perspective, he said, explaining that the bulk of all wine sales are still in the $5 to $15 price range.

Total wine grape acreage for the state is around 44,000 acres, including nonbearing vineyards. Ball expects future yields to surpass the state record of 160,000 tons reached in 2010 as vines recover.