Concord grapes take off with organic approach

The Miller family’s place in the history of Washington wine is secure, and their Airfield Estates tasting room ranks as one of the most iconic in the Yakima Valley.

Along the way, however, Marcus Miller positioned Airport Ranch Vineyards into one of the state’s most important producers of Concord juice grapes.

It makes sense that the grape variety native to North America thrives across the farmland that his great grand-father, H. Lloyd Miller, saw transformed into an airbase that trained more than 500 Army Air Corps pilots during World War II.

In 1968, the Millers began to plant wine grapes and quickly became one of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s most important growers. Those vineyards within the Roza Irrigation District span 830 acres, but right across Bethany Road are blocks of the Miller family’s Concord vines. Their holdings of that variety cover 355 acres.

“Someone recently told me that we’ve become the largest grower for Welch’s in the state,” Miller said. “And that 355 is a changing number. As we find vinifera (wine grape) vineyards that aren’t performing as well as we’d like, we will transition some of those to Concord for Welch’s.”

Price per pound increases

Marcus Miller, president of Airport Ranch Vineyards and managing member for Airfield Estates Winery in Prosser, stands in Block B-1 of his family’s 355 acres of Concord vineyards. The block along Bethany Road in Sunnyside was planted in 2000 and is in the process of transitioning to organic. (Courtesy Airport Ranch Vineyards)

Miller, who serves as president of Airport Ranch Vineyards and managing member for Airfield Estates Winery, says there is renewed optimism among Concord juice grape growers. The market was historically soft for several years, prompting some in the state to remove Concord vines.

In that regard, market conditions for wine grape growers and juice grape growers have been similar.

Now, however, the economic balance of supply-demand is tilting toward those who held onto their Concord vines – especially if they can sell that fruit as organic to processors in the Yakima Valley such as the National Grape Cooperative, a division of Welch’s.

In 2020, the average price per ton paid to Concord growers in Washington finished at $205. If those grapes were certified organic, then the farmer received $260 per ton.

Before the pandemic, Concord growers in Washington got $170 per ton. From 2014-17, growers in Washington earned $110 to $120 per ton for Concord grapes, which are turned into beverages, jams and jelly.

The high point for the state’s juice grape industry hit in 2012, when farmers fetched $280 per ton. Three years later, the bottom dropped out at $110 per ton.

These days, however, the potential price for organic Concord grapes from the 2021 vintage is particularly exciting for Miller.

“I’ve heard $300 and more a ton mentioned for conventional, and there’s a 35% premium for organic,” he said.

Demand for organic

Historically, Washington state is responsible for about half of the Concord grape production in the U.S. On the East Coast, particularly in New York and near Lake Erie, the smaller harvest of 2020 led processors to pay an average $285 per ton – $80 higher than Washington growers.

Miller says he’s more bullish on the industry since Welch’s hired Trevor Bynum as its president and CEO in the fall of 2018. Bynum spent four years as president of the food service division at Schwan’s Co. Prior to that, the former U.S. Army captain was a marketing executive at General Mills.

“It’s been a very bleak period for growers, but he’s brought some stability and predictability,” Miller said. “Covid also created a spike in demand, and in detailing the returns of the last year – there’s that talk about $300 or more per ton – we might be entering an unprecedented time of good fortune as an industry.

“And I think that’s due in part to a common sense approach by Welch’s management and their increased manufacturing efficiencies,” Miller said. “They didn’t just see the spikes in planting and have the mindset that ‘marketing’ was just going to solve all of our problems.”

The array of products in the juice grape industry swelled beyond 100 possible items, but less than half of those translated into much success in terms of sales, Miller said. Meanwhile, store shelves of beverages are more crowded than ever, especially those labeled as organic, natural, lower in calories or lower in alcohol content.

“Demand has spiked for organic, and the promise has been made to growers that if you transition to organic farming, there will be a 35% premium on your return for those grapes with a guarantee of that for five years,” Miller said.

For the 2021 vintage, Airfield Ranch will have 160 acres of certified organic Concord grapes to sell. Miller said another 60 acres are in transition, which means more than 60% of his family’s 355 acres in juice grapes would qualify for that premium price.

Juice vs. wine grapes

While there’s considerably less stress to farm native grapes such as Concord and Niagara for juice, there’s more money to be made with wine grapes.

“You can get $1,000 a ton for your white wine grapes, and you can crop those to six to seven tons per acre, so that’s about $6,000 to $7,000 per acre,” Miller said. “On Concords, we always hope for a 13-ton crop per acre.”

That’s where the transition to organic Concord is so appealing. If Airport Ranch can earn $400 per ton, that pencils out to $5,200 per acre. Last year, when a grower was receiving $205 a ton for non-certified organic Concord grapes, that’s $2,665 per acre.

Juice grapes aren’t nearly as sexy as wine grapes, but they don’t require much hand holding, either.

“All the farming is mechanical,” Miller says. “You’ve got to water Concords. You’ve got to fertilize them, and then you pick them and then deliver them. It is pretty simple. Weeds are the No. 1 issue, especially with the organic vineyards.”

Growers of wine grapes can see their harvest stretched out from August through November and sometimes into December because varieties ripen at different times and winemakers target their grapes to have specific profiles of sweetness and natural acidity, typically around 24% sugar content. For winemakers, the term of measurement is Brix – named for 19th century German mathematician Adolf Brix.

That’s not the case for juice grapes, which hit ripeness at 15 Brix around the second week of October – in the middle of wine grape harvest. Niagara, a white variety native to the Great Lakes region, typically is brought in ahead of Concord.

“It starts getting pretty fragrant in the valley a week or two prior to picking the Concords,” Miller says. “And when the organic Concords are ready, you have five to seven days to get those grapes in.”

Miller’s winemaker, Travis Maple, doesn’t see a single Airport Ranch Concord grape come across his Sunnyside crush pad during the 30-day harvest period for the  Concord crop. All of the Concord management is orchestrated by second-generation grower John Niemeyer, and those machine-harvested Concord grapes come off the vine at night. It’s a nearly endless procession of trucks rumbling down the slopes of the Roza to Grandview and back up.

“Last year, we were running 14 trucks per night when we were at 100 acres of organic grapes,” Miller said. “Now that we’re at 160 acres, we’re looking at 22 loads a night for a week. The logistics of getting the crop in such a short period at that time of the year is the biggest challenge.”

Don’t expect Miller – who graduated from Walla Walla Community College’s famed winemaking school in 2004 – to begin producing a sparkling Concord wine or turn any of those prized organic grapes into an Airfield Estates “frosé,” a slushy, slightly frozen presentation of rosé. And yet, there is a delicious bit of show-and-tell at his winery’s tasting room in Prosser, where photos of Airport Ranch’s legacy are on display.

“There’s been a focus on creating an experience for kids,” Miller says. “We’ll get these toy gliders into their hands, and we also have chilled Welch’s grape juice to give them and the designated drivers, so there is a little synergy there.”

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

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