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Column: Laying raisins Sept. 20 sure sign wineries in control

Barreling down Highway 99, I glanced to a vineyard along side the world’s longest race track just south of Fresno. A small crew of workers was laying golden, sugar-filled Thompson seedless grapes between vine rows to make wonderful California sun-dried raisins. Not an unusual sight for late summer or early September.

I looked at the calendar on my truck sun visor and confirmed my suspicions that it was a bit late for raisin harvest. It was September 20, almost 3 weeks later than what is the final, logical date for laying raisins to dry to dodge a significant chance of rain.

It was late because Thompson growers in Fresno, Tulare and Madera counties were awaiting word on whether the world’s largest winery, E&J Gallo and the other two major wineries in the San Joaquin Valley, would buy open market Thompsons for concentrate. If the Big 3 bought the Thompsons for concentrate, the grapes could be mechanically harvest rather than hand harvested by hand for raisins, and it would save growers a lot of money and anxiety. Last year Gallo and others paid $200 per ton and experts were predicting maybe not $200, but a reasonable price.

Gallo eventually offered $100 for open market Thompson — the first week of October. Not only was the price an affront, the timing was a total insult.

About the same time I received an e-mail from a frustrated grower criticizing me for an article I had written quoting a grape expert saying the market had turned the corner for wine grapes and concentrate after an extended down cycle. He ended the e-mail by saying, “Where’s Gallo?”

I did not have the heart to reply: Where he — and the two other major wineries have always been -- on the sidelines laughing at the chaos they once again created in California vineyards. Chaos drives down prices, and they know it. There were reports of growers panicking and taking $60 to find a home for their grapes before Gallo came out with its $100 price.

For two years I have been hearing growers talking about Gallo contracting for grapes from new valley vineyards. There has to be some truth to the reports. If I was hearing it, why weren’t grape growers? It was no surprise Gallo did not toss $200 concentrate prices into the open market. Gallo obviously had all the grapes it wanted under contract.

From this year’s January Unified Wine Symposium in Sacramento, I wrote an article about the unholy alliance between grape growers and wineries and the games that are being played called hang time and then add a little water to the wine to make up for the tonnage shortfall growers absorbed. My e-mails from that article basically labeled me a sensationalist yellow journalist bent on tearing down a wine industry where growers and vintners love each other, join hands in the vineyard, sing Gumbuya and make wonderful wine. Most of those e-mails were from the North Coast and Central Coast.

The heart of California’s wine industry is not the coast. It is from Modesto to Bakersfield — the San Joaquin Valley. The California wine industry is that poor Thompson grower who finally became weary of waiting on the wine industry’s trio of 800-pound gorillas to speak and laid raisins on Sept. 20, praying that it did not rain and ruin a year’s work.

Central Valley raisin growers and wine grape growers must gain control of their own destiny.

Richard Garabedian, chairman of the Raisin Administrative Committee hit the nail on the head — finally — when he was quoted in the Fresno Bee saying, “The raisin industry has to rely on itself and forget about the winery. We have to put our house in order and not rely on whether the winery buys or doesn’t buy. We have to do a better job with raisin sales.” AMEN!

Almond producers have. Pistachio growers have. Table grape growers have and the list goes on and on. It can be done. San Joaquin Valley wine and raisin grape growers must take charge of their destiny and quit waiting on the three largest wineries in the state to tell them if they are going to make money or lose money.

Raisin growers, promote your product like you once did and create consumer demand for one of the healthiest, finest foods from California’s bountiful harvest. Wine grape growers join together and promote your product as well. Create demand that will allow you to set your own grape price. It may about time for valley growers to talk about a wine grape bargaining association. Although the three major wineries once again played games with prices this year, wine grape supplies should be tight now with all the vines that have been piled and burned. The surplus should be gone.

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