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At Global Grape Summit, John Pandol Speaks On Challenges Of Grape Multiplicity And Hand-harvesting In Age Of Robotics

In gathering the best and brightest to present at our events, we are proud to have serious people who are helping the industry wrestle with serious issues. But life should include some sweet fruit — maybe even drenched in brandy and covered in whipped cream — as well as steak. So, it is a special treat to have a friend who is both serious and witty. In fact, John Pandol has functioned as the “unofficial” PRODUCE BUSINESS humorist for many years, producing articles that tell the truth — with a twist. You can read some of these pieces here:


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PMA’s EAT BRIGHTER Campaign Trumpets Success But The Data Tells Us Nothing About Any Consumption Boost

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Truce Confessions Of A Conference Junkie

Communications Technology – The Flintstone’s Task With The Jetson’s Tools

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An Insider’s Search For Cool

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Cull to Action

Ugly Produce: The 2.0 of Dumpster Diving

Good Help Is Hard To Keep And Harder To Make

We asked Matthew Ogg, contributing editor for sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS and to catch up with John before he heads over to London to give us his unique perspective on the table grape industry.

John Pandol
Director of Special Projects
Pandol Brothers

Q: You’ll be taking part in a panel on the consumer response to new table grape varieties, a topic you’ve been a bit skeptical about in the past with the introduction of so many cultivars.

A: Correct.

Q: So, would you be able to give me a summary of your view on new varieties?

A: We know in the U.S. market, at least, that because PLU usage is not uniform, the data is hard to drill down too far. So really the quality of the overall market data is not as usable as some of the other commodities, and that makes that kind of hard analysis dangerous to make.

As just a general comment, I look at varieties as a technology, and if I were adopting a technology – say chemical or packaging – would I market it in the same way? That is from a sales point of view. Is the variety a feature or a benefit for either the retailer itself or the end consumer?

Q: You have to question whether it’s going to be just a novelty or something that really drives sales…

A: Is the differentiation something that’s going to be a benefit, or not? If it’s a nice red seedless grape but not terribly different from others but it’s just a feature and not a benefit, in that case the premium might be the sale.

If we go back to one of the old sales standbys ‘the customer is always right’, some customers may view it as a benefit as a differentiation and others may not. Although retailers may not have the same attitude towards varieties generally or a specific variety.

I may have one retailer who is absolutely in love with something, and he may think in their format it works, that they can differentiate and use it as a benefit, whereas in a more value-oriented format they’re simply looking for something that’s sound and sufficient and not really a big benefit and nor are they looking for it.

The go-to-market strategies must be tailored to different customers.

Q: In the U.S. market are there any varieties that you think have stood out, whether it be as a feature or a benefit in supermarkets?

A: I would say in recent times the Cotton Candy is the obvious example of something that grabbed the imagination of retail and consumers like we have not seen in really anything, certainly not in my lifetime.

What’s odd is that they have not had the same reaction from the non-U.S. supply — California seems to drive it more than the Cotton Candy from other regions, and that to me is a very curious reality.

Q: That’s interesting. I didn’t realize that.

A: Remember, you can eat grapes fresh and you can make wine. Imagine the wine buyer and the fresh grape buyer changing places but keeping their same criteria, and all of a sudden the new fresh buyer says grapes are different depending on where they’re grown, and the fresh grape buyer now buying wine says ‘I don’t care if the cabernet is from the Napa Valley or Fresno, it’s all the same’. They cannot both be right.

Q: Whereas we all know that in the wine industry they very much value that sense of provenance.

A: Because it’s real. I can’t take grapes from the Central Valley, pour them in bottles and label them as from Napa — they’re just not the same.

Q: So how do we apply this comparison for industry improvement?

A: Another observation we get out of the U.S. over the past few years is we are increasingly hearing sales are more robust during the California season than the offshore season, and it seems to be that freshness is a driver.

That’s the only thing I can think of, and what has happened is that when we had fewer varieties we stored grapes more. Now we have new varieties of white and red constantly coming off, so we have fresher grapes at retail, and that has boosted consumption.

And as people become accustomed to fresher grapes, grapes that come from offshore that simply take longer to get here, they don’t seem to be as excited about them.

Q: Despite the fact that growers, whether they be in Chile, Peru or South Africa, are indeed investing in new varieties themselves?

A: They’re in the new varieties, they harvest at the same maturity, the same quality characteristics. The only thing that’s different is age. Really the question is: Do I have the right cause and effect or no? You’d say the grapes are effectively identical, so why would they sell better in our season with much more competition with other things than they do in the off-season?

Q: Do you think patriotism would play any part?

A: No. Generally speaking, Americans talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. For example, when you go to Mexico, everyone says don’t drink the water and then our biggest agricultural import from Mexico is beer. Go figure — all the hops and all the grains are shipped from the USA to Mexico, they add their water and bring it back here. That makes no sense at all.

We don’t see it in other products either — produce, food or anything else. The national origin doesn’t seem to matter despite the talk.

Q:  This obviously presents challenges to the industry, especially for those outside the United States. So where do we go from here? What is the next step for the sector to make further gains and increase consumer interest?

A: I think consumers are confronted with too many choices. We’re starting to see products that are essentially graded by computers. Every blueberry goes down the line, and every blueberry is examined, or every citrus might be infra-red sugar-checked. If you think about the 100 berries on a grape bunch, how do we know that they’re all uniformly a good eating experience?

I think we’re just going to start seeing a separation from items that are robotically or in some mechanized way have quality control, and those that were simply looked at by the human eye. And that type of variation is a problem.

Q: So you see a problem in the fact that table grapes are still hand-harvested?

A: Basically, we look at it and we’re looking at very subtle changes in color to visually determine maturity. And one of the challenges of the new varieties is that with fewer varieties people knew what color to pick – well, now each variety may have its own color.

You may have a white variety that eats well when it is grass-green; the next variety doesn’t eat well until it’s amber, and the next one in between. Imagine these are on a supermarket shelf at the same time!  What does the retail shopper look for? How do I train my harvest crews, assuming I am still hand harvesting in the future?

If the visual cues are not there, there’s also the risk of being overripe. We’ve had people wait longer until they’re higher sugar, and while sugar goes up, other characteristics like texture may actually go down. Essentially, we don’t think of grapes being overripe, but they all have a minimum, maximum and optimum.

Our problem is now we have to figure out what is the minimum, maximum and optimum for 80 different varieties, which in theory are going to be obsolete in 10 years.

Q: Well we can only hope that some smart people are out there working in machinery and robotics and AI that can cater to all these different varieties.

A: A generation ago you said ‘oh, my kid knows about computers, he’ll do the website’. Well, my nephew was just at a high school competition for robotics. So yeah, he’ll figure it out.


John raises many important questions. These two are particularly intriguing:

  1. The relative acceptance of Cotton Candy grapes in the US and overseas
  2. The relative sales strength in the US of grapes during the California season, as opposed to the imported season.

We haven’t seen enough data to come to strong opinions on either of these questions, but we would urge caution as these things are impacted by many variables that are very hard to trace.

Back when the Alar scare hit the US produce industry, apple sales collapsed — the presumption was that it was consumer concerns over Alar. But later studies brought this into question. Retailers had pulled back on putting apples on ad, they reduced promotion and shelf space. You can’t run a controlled test on these things, but there seems to be significant reason to believe that had retailers continued their normal promotional program, the decline in apple sales would have been significantly less than it was.

Does the terroir of table grapes, as in wine, impact the flavor? Do consumer tastes vary from culture to culture? How are prices and display philosophy different in different markets and in different times of the year?

So much to discuss, so many thoughtful people to discuss these subjects with. That is what the Global Grape Summit and The London Produce Show and Conference are all about.

You can catch the Global Grape Summit website here.

The London Produce Show and Conference website here.

If you have questions, please ask us here.

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