Concords rebound: Juice grape growers step up to meet demand

There is no glitz or glamour associated with Concord grape production in Washington state, but the industry is looking better now than in recent years.

The reversal stems from growers removing vines, which means they are sending fewer grapes to processors for Concord juice and jelly. But that’s not the only reason for optimism in a pandemic-plagued economy.

“It’s been a pretty bleak crop for several years, and now it’s starting to get on the good side of supply and demand — particularly with the stay-at-home orders and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” said Mike Sauer, who grows Concord as well as wine grapes at Red Willow Vineyards west of Wapato. “People are eating at home, and what’s quick and easy and wholesome with kids around? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This whole shut-in deal has a lot of odd consequences.”

Dick Boushey, another acclaimed wine grape grower in the Yakima Valley, sits on the board for the National Grape Cooperative Association Inc., the group of farmers across North America that owns Welch’s. His 40-year-old, 300-acre family farm near Grandview includes 40 acres of Concord and 40 acres of Niagara, another juice grape variety.

“The processors can’t keep up with demand,” Boushey said. “I don’t know if it’s sustainable, but they are running out of supply in some places.”

That’s all resulted in measured optimism across the Yakima Valley and throughout Washington state, according to Trent Ball, a member of the Washington State Grape Society and faculty at Yakima Valley College in Grandview, where he also is the Agriculture Department chair.

“There was a lot of concern for a couple of years, but now we’re starting to see what’s happened because the acreage planted has dropped,” said Ball, who gathers the data each year for the state’s juice grape industry. “Some of those Concord vineyards have transitioned to hops because of the growth in that sector.”

Washington state still dominated the U.S. industry last year with 176,237 tons of juice grapes produced.

At the same time, wineries in the Evergreen State crushed 201,000 tons of wine grapes, a
23 percent drop from 2018 as a result of an early frost and a global wine glut. The last time juice grape production in Washington outweighed wine grapes was 2014.

For Concord growers, the 2019 vintage brought an average of price of $170 per ton, up $5 from 2018.

“You aren’t going to get rich out of it, but you might be able to put some new posts in,” Boushey quipped.

However, everyone in the industry looks back fondly upon the halcyon vintage of 2012 when the price reached a record $280 per ton. Just three years later, growers got a mere $110 per ton.

“That’s an awfully low price, and it’s very challenging for the farmer when the price is in that range,” Ball said.

Boushey said, “It hit bottom and it’s bouncing back up, which is kind of a neat thing to be a part of.”

The Yakima Valley remains the cradle of Concord production in the state.

Other significant players in the juice grape arena are New York, which ranked second with an estimated 120,000 tons harvested, followed by Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. However, if state lines are crossed, then the Lake Erie region at 197,000 tons would edge past Washington.

“In New York and the Lake Erie regions, they are using some Concords for winemaking, and this is bringing the price up, too,” Ball pointed out.

Adding to the appeal of farming juice grapes is they do well in deeper soils and areas where orchard fruit and wine grapes won’t thrive.

Sauer’s first commercial vineyard planted in 1971 at famed Red Willow spanned 30 acres of Concord, “along with a few token rows of wine grapes — Chenin Blanc, Sèmillon and Chasselas,” he said.

That same year marked the formation of the Washington State Grape Society. Back then, there were about 200 acres of wine grape vineyards vs. 9,700 acres of Concord vines. That’s largely because Washington residents had for decades been drinking sweet and fortified wines made from Concord.

Last year, officials reported 59,000 acres of Vitis vinifera grapes vs. 17,100 acres of Concord — Vitis labrusca. That’s down from the 25,000 acres of Concord in 2002. Back then, the total included Snake River Vineyard near Burbank, which at 2,388 acres was the world’s largest Concord planting. However, the Taggares family has shifted its focus to tree fruit.

Sauer and his sons at Red Willow also have pulled back on Concord.

“We were up to about 110 acres or so, but now we’re down to about 70 acres,” Sauer said. “We took out 3 to 5 acres a year for the past 10 years or so, which were mainly in weaker parts of the vineyards.”

Two decades ago, research by Washington State University indicated the break-even point was $122 per ton based on a yield of 10 tons per acre.

“The average depends upon the year, but in Washington, it’s generally around 10-12 tons per acre,” Ball said.

Boushey noted that while Snake River Vineyard could yield a whopping 15 tons per acre because of its trellising system, he targets 13 tons per acre.

Data from last year indicated that the U.S. imported less grape juice — about 20 million gallons — than the country had at any point in the previous two decades.

At the same time, Ball reports an increased interest in organic juice grapes. Last year, that segment accounted for about 9 percent of the state’s total production. The year prior, it was 6 percent.

Growers harvest Concord grapes for juice at a ripeness of around 17 Brix, which means the sugar makes up 17 percent of the grape’s natural juice.

“Some years, we’re able to push it into the 18 Brix range,” Boushey said.

The same standard of measurement is used in the wine industry, and most grapes for red wines are harvested at 24 Brix.

Whereas a ton of wine grape juice yields about 165 gallons of juice, a ton of Concord grapes produces 190 gallons. Processors typically pasteurize the juice and create a concentrate of 68 percent sugar, which makes it more cost-efficient to transport.

And while Ball’s research is dominated by the Concord industry, there are about 1,240 acres of Niagara vines in the state. On average, that white variety represents 6-9 percent of the overall juice grape industry each year. In 2019, its 14,411 tons went down as the second-smallest crop from Washington in the past decade.

Ironically, the winemaking program at Yakima Valley College — Yakima Valley Vintners — does not work with either Concord or Niagara.

“I really hadn’t thought about it before,” Ball said with a chuckle. “There’s no specific reason why because there are so many growers in the valley, but vinifera is king from a winemaking standpoint. In other parts of the country, Concord wine is normal, but the response to Concords is different in Washington. It’s not really what we’re used to drinking.”

That’s largely because the profile of the Concord grape naturally contains methyl anthranilate, a chemical compound with aromas often described as “foxy.” But for many in the Yakima Valley, that’s a sweet sense of success.

“You definitely know when Concord harvest is near,” Ball said. “You can smell that aroma. It’s a great time of year because you know harvest is around the corner.”

Who knows, but someday Ball and his students might dabble in Concord wine.

“The grape lends itself to a fruit-forward wine, and they are usually balanced with a bit of residual sugar,” Ball said. “And because they are just so fruity in their expression, if you did use any oak it would have to be neutral barrels.”

The Washington State Grape Society does endorse an adult beverage on its website that features Concord grape jelly. It’s a cocktail called Deep Purple Velvet, and the recipe includes heavy cream, brandy and triple sec.

Eric Degerman owns and operates GreatNorthwestWine.com, an award-winning website that covers the Pacific Northwest wine industry.

 

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