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Juicy fruit: State dominates U.S. for Concords

By Andy Perdue

While the Washington wine grape market booms, even approaching the state apple industry in size and economic importance, there’s another grape industry that tops the nation in size: juice grapes.

Last year, Concord grape growers brought in nearly 200,000 tons of fruit — 3 percent over the prior year, valued at $41.8 million.

Though the industry got its start on the East Coast — the original Concord grape was developed in Massachusetts in the mid-1840s — and while states such as New York, Michigan and  Pennsylvania are large growers, Washington has long been the nation’s No. 1 grower, with the Yakima Valley and Burbank areas in Walla Walla County being favorite areas for growers.

Concords in Washington date back at least a century, first planted near Outlook, in 1904. Through the years, they’ve been used to make juice, jelly, candy – even wine. Concords were the first grapes in Washington that were mechanically harvested in 1968.

The Concord gets its name from the town of Concord, Massachusetts, where Ephraim Bull propagated the original vine after selecting a single vine from the 22,000 he planted. It was developed from wild vines growing in North America and was brought to market in the 1860s by Thomas Welch. After it was pasteurized, it wouldn’t ferment, so it was used for church communion services.

Bull’s original Concord vine is alive and well at his home in Concord, still producing grapes each season.

Washington tends to lead the way, not only in quantity but in quality. The reasons for this are myriad, but it comes down to
the same reason Eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley produces world-class wine grapes: climate and irrigation.

Well-draining sandy soils and scant precipitation mean farmers apply water through irrigation, giving them control over the plants and their vigor. Also important is the perpetually blue skies that help the plants convert sunshine into sugar.

In the grape juice game, it’s all about sweetness.

Typically, Concord growers aim for grapes that are around 15 percent sugar, said Dick Boushey, a grower north of Grandview who also is on Welch’s board of directors.

For grapes to make red wine, the target often is 24 percent sugar.

Boushey, more famous as one of Washington’s top wine grape growers, planted Concords along County Line Road in 1980. He now farms about 90 acres of juice grapes, along with 220 acres of his own wine grapes and an additional 300 acres he manages for others, primarily on Red Mountain.

The mix works well for Boushey, primarily because he can use the same crews and the same farming equipment for juice and wine grape varieties.

Concords are a heavily mechanized crop. Today, everything from pruning to harvesting is done by machines, helping to make the crop less labor dependent and more profitable.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington produces more than half the nation’s half-million tons of Concords annually.

Concords are hearty vines, meaning they can withstand Washington’s occasionally harsh winters with little to no damage.

Boushey said the only year he saw damage was in the late 1970s, when severe cold caused widespread damage to the relatively tender wine grapevines.

Farming Concords vs. wine grapes is quite different. Wine grapes typically are grown at low tonnage. Winemakers like their tonnage low, often as low as two tons of fruit per acre.

Concords, meanwhile, can be grown at upward of 10 tons per acre, harvested when the fruit reaches the desired level of sweetness.

One of the challenges of growing Concords is changing market needs. Most East Coast Concords are crushed and used for juices, jelly or other products.

In Washington, the fruit is processed in the Yakima Valley, and much of it converted to concentrate then shipped to Asia, where it is used for juice, jelly and other products sold in Japan and Korea.

In recent years, the juice grape industry has seen a string of bumper crops, meaning lots of grapes and lower prices.

One option left for companies like Welch’s is to convert grape juice to concentrate, then store it until the market needs the product.

The grape juice market is a bit depressed right now because consumers are buying less pure juice, primarily because of concerns over calories and sugar intake, Boushey said.  Sodas are typically processed with 10 times the amount of sugar as Concord grape juice.

Not only is grape juice naturally sweetened by sugar in the fruit, but Concords also have the advantage of providing the same heart-healthy benefits as red wine, thanks to polyphenols found naturally in the grape skins.

Converting grape juice to concentrate is a benefit at a time when there is an oversupply in the market.

If you’re driving through the Yakima Valley, how can you tell if a vineyard has Concords or wine grapes?

Wine grapes are grown more vertically to expose the clusters to sunshine and the leaf canopy is managed to allow for air flow.

Concords often appear rather shaggy, and you can’t see the grape clusters until you get up close and pull back the leaves.

During harvest time in September, roll down your window to catch the familiar aroma of Concords.

Welch’s is a cooperative, collectively owned by more than 900 farmers and growers nationwide, controlled by the National Grape Cooperative, of which Boushey is a member. He also serves on the board of the Auction of Washington Wines and the Washington State Wine Commission. He’s also a past chairman of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, now called the Washington Winegrowers.

He and other juice grape growers have found a new market for their juice: wineries on the East Coast and in the Midwest states that want juice to blend with other grape varieties to make wine. Brands such as Manischewitz and Mogen David, the maker of Mad Dog 20/20, and other flavored wines are typically made with Concord juice, whereas all Washington wines are made with classic European grape varieties.

Boushey was surprised a wine market opened up for Concord juice, but he is pleased with the margins growers get for the product.

He added that new Concord vineyards are not being planted in Washington because the supply is balanced with the demand. He added that although Washington’s juice grape market is in good shape, it’s not in a growth mode right now.

Andy Perdue, editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and founding editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine, is the wine columnist for The Seattle Times.

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