GRANDVIEW — Washington’s grape juice, the unfermented kind, has quietly enjoyed a pretty good year thanks to higher prices and a relatively bountiful crop.
“We’re seeing something that is a little crazy,” said Trent Ball, chairman of the Yakima Valley Community College’s agriculture program and a partner in an agriculture business consulting firm, speaking Thursday at the Washington State Grape Society Annual Meeting.
However, those rising prices should be peaking, said Jim Gauley, co-owner and vice president of FruitSmart, a specialty juice processor in Grandview. Just like a roller coaster, prices are bound to come back down, he said. He doesn’t know when.
“If I knew I’d be rich,” Gauley told the audience of roughly 200 people. The Grape Society focuses mostly on juice grapes, though many of its members also grow wine grapes.
Washington is the nation’s largest producer of juice grapes, contributing more than half the country’s annual tonnage. Concords are by far the predominant variety.
The Yakima Valley is the state’s highest producing region and most of the Valley’s juice grapes are within 20 miles of Grandview.
This year, state growers harvested an estimated 174,000 tons, considerably higher than the cooler 2010 and 2011 seasons but down about 19 tons from the 10-year average, Ball said.
Growers in Washington had it good this year compared to their colleagues in the East, where heavy spring frosts wiped out as much as 90 percent of some vineyards. New York, the nation’s second largest producer, and Michigan harvested from 55 percent to 60 percent less than normal.
Moreover, prices continue to soar. The Washington average cash paid to growers was $280 per ton and has been rising for each of the past seven years except one. Concentrates were nearly $20 per ton paid to the processors.
Demand is so high that the industry has been turning to imports from Argentina, Brazil and Chile to top off inventories, said Greg MaGill, a broker for Ciatti Co. of San Rafael, Calif.
“We are in a global economy,” MaGill said.
All agricultural markets are cyclical. This hot streak is just longer than usual, industry officials said Thursday. But growers and processors don’t expect the strong market to last forever.
Arthur den Hoed, a Sunnyside grower and president of the Grape Society, said the industry expects few new vineyards in the coming years because corn and wheat prices are high now, too.
“It has ups and downs,” said Mary Ann Bliesner, president of Valley Processing, a Sunnyside facility that turns 2,500 tons of grapes into juice concentrate and purees for jam and jelly. “You can sit on inventory, then you’ll have a short crop.”
The 32-year veteran of the business estimates her plant processed about 18 percent less volume this year, in part because of a summer thunderstorm that caused spotty damage and because growers have been removing vineyards. Overall acreage of juice grapes is down in the state.
In spite of Washington’s abundance of juice grapes, the state’s wine grape industry gets more prestige.
“There’s just so much more hype around (wine),” said Charlie Meyers, plant manager at Valley Processing. “To me, Concords would be more of a staple.”
Wine grape growers constantly experiment with new varieties and watering techniques, catering their fruit to the whims of a winemaker who walks their rows.
Juice grape growers have sugar level requirements but mostly seek volume from their vineyards. Meanwhile, the Concord grape, pioneered by a pastor in Massachusetts looking for a nonalcoholic communion drink in the 1700s, has changed little over the centuries, said Mike Concienne, regional manager for the Welch’s grape growers cooperative.
“It’s not as complex as the wine industry,” Concienne said.
Welch’s Grandview concentrate plant represents nearly half the region’s grapes.
And both wine grapes and juice grapes play their role in the Yakima Valley’s economy.
“I think they complement each other,” Concienne said. “I think it’s good we have both.”
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or email@example.com.