Rupert Maude has worked for a major producer and a breeder, has lived and worked in producing and consuming countries, and has sold a variety of fresh produce including lettuce, almonds, garlic, and, more recently, stone fruit and table grapes.
Last year, Sun World International named Maude its Brand Ambassador. This new role is one Maude says he has unofficially held for many years. Maude will share his experiences on both the grower and breeder side at the Global Grape Summit by speaking about how key issues can be resolved for the good of the whole industry: the grower, the licensor, the retailer, and the global grape industry.
Pundit readers were first introduced to Maude in 2019 when he participated in a panel discussion at the inaugural Global Grape Summit, held in London as part of the London Produce Show. Then Commercial Director of El Ciruelo in Spain, Maude talked about the future of the industry in the decade ahead.
Fast forward to this week, wea sked Carol Bareuther, RD, contributing editor at the Perishable Pundit’s sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to speak with Maude to gain a ‘sneak preview” of his presentation:
PP: How and when did you first become interested in grapes?
RM: I’ve been involved in the grape industry now going on 20 years, but I’ve been interested in grapes since 40 years ago. Back then, I worked in New Zealand with kiwifruit. There was a Japanese gentleman who lived in the local town. He grew grapes in a greenhouse and shipped them to Japan in a wooden box. There, they were put into fruit baskets and given as presents to be displayed, respected, and admired.
The idea that he put in this tremendous time and effort to produce just a few bunches of these very expensive and fantastic fruits was amazing. I remember being fascinated by his business.
PP: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years?
RM: The supply chain has changed dramatically. Originally, you’d have a grower, packer, an agent for the exporter, then the exporter, an agent receiving for the importer, then the importer to the packer, and packer to the retailer.
There was an awful lot of people doing very little but making a lot of money out of grapes and other products. As time passed the supply chain has come under pressure, and these people have disappeared. That’s for the betterment of the business, I think. The growers get a better return. They get a realistic return where before the bite taken out before they got any return was very large.
Another big change is the way that fruit is sold. It used to be that, in most markets, you would have a loose offer. In other words, an open or unsealed bag of fruit. This way, the wastage and the damage caused to the product were quite considerable. Europe has now gone 90% to baskets or punnets in 400-, 500-, or 700-gram units. The fruit is sealed, either with a heat seal, flow wrap, or clamshell pack. There are still bags and loose fruit sold in places like the U.S. and Asia, but I would say overall worldwide the largest sale is baskets and punnets. This is because it’s the most efficient, cost-effective way of moving the grape around and it protects the grapes.
Then another change in the past 40 years, of course, is the introduction of different varieties, flavors, textures, and colors. We see a situation where not long ago there were very few varieties. I mean, maybe 30 or 40 varieties in the known world. I’m not talking about obscure varieties that never leave their countries of origin. I’m talking about varieties grown in the States, Europe, and Asia. A lot of those varieties came out of the States, out of California.
Seeded varieties have become obsolete in many markets because of the cost of growing them and the preference of the consumer — although there are still a lot of seeded grapes sold in Eastern and Central Europe. But overall, the preference is definitely seedless.
PP: Where are grape-breeding programs focused today?
RM: Well, as a rule, all breeding must be focused on the consumer. But then, any variety that is going to work commercially must work for the grower, packer, receiver, and retailer as well as for the consumer. If the whole chain isn’t satisfied, that variety will fail.
It may be because the fruit shatters, or doesn’t have a good shelf life, or doesn’t taste right, or has seed tags. So, a variety must satisfy all the players within the supply chain, and that is the goal of any breeding program.
PP: Will we see some really interesting looking flavored grapes from these programs?
RM: There is work being done to look at different colored flesh grapes and supposedly the benefits they may have. But in the current commercial situation, certainly in Europe as well as the States, cheap is the winner. It doesn’t matter the product. It’s price price price, especially with the escalating costs of energy, labor, water, and transport.
There’s no real room for the super-premium. That’s because there’s no real volume of sales. Consumers, wealthy or not, are aware of the cost of what they’re buying and would prefer a good solid product rather than something super fancy. So, special grapes are great, but it’s a very small market. It’s a very niche market.
In the current economic climate where you have phrases like ‘heating or eating’, the cost of living is a real concern, and it keeps going up. So, for fruit like grapes, it’s going to have to deliver a lot more than a little color difference for consumers to pay premium prices.
PP: How are we seeing licensed varieties and breeding programs develop rather than the old way of public university varieties? What does this mean for the industry?
RM: The idea is to improve on what’s already there. A car is a good analogy. You could buy the same basic model and size of car ten years ago as you can buy now, but today it would be a lot more advanced. It will have more features and be more efficient. Well, that’s the idea with new grape varieties. Maybe they’ll be more resistant to problems like diseases. Maybe offer a better shelf life, flavor or uniformity of production, a consistent sugar. You want a variety that your growers and major stakeholders can plant with confidence knowing that customers will see it, eat it and consider it a must-have variety.
PP: Lastly, what is the best way to increase consumption?
RM: I think it will be a combination of things. The introduction of more consistent varieties will get greater pick-up by retailers, and retailers are the route to market for varieties and ultimately the consumer. We want retailers to put varieties in front of consumers, so consumers get an opportunity to try and vote whether they like it by buying it or not.
Another thing is promotion. As an industry, this hasn’t been done well or widescale. There has been some promotion over the years that I’ve been involved in. For example, Food from Spain had an office in London, and they promoted products across the season with a budget of about £6 million.
The French are quite good at spending money on promotion, whether it be cauliflower or apples. Years ago, New Zealand represented and promoted kiwi pretty well. But I think finding a way for the industry to promote grapes better is vital. That, and being sure the product arrives in the best possible condition at the supermarket, is absolutely essential to increasing consumption.
Rupert has an unusual pedigree. He comes from a consuming country, the United Kingdom. Yet, he has lived and worked predominantly in a producing country, Spain. He has worked on the production side with a grower/packer/shipper and now is working on the licensing side with a breeder.
We asked Rupert to speak because we thought in these intersections there is a unique insight and, indeed, a great presentation.
After all, the challenges are clear. As a producer, one would like exclusivity. Yet as a breeder, one would value revenue from a broader market share.
Yet, in the end, the only way everyone can win is if we find a way to increase per capita consumption of grapes.
Since Chilean fruit became common and grapes were established as a year-round product, per capita consumption in the United States has been basically flat.
Although it may be true that, short term, most retailers focus on price and that most growers focus on high yields and low cost of production, it is not 100% clear that this is the path to boosting per capita consumption.
We noted in the apple industry wild demand and high prices for Honeycrisp. These were sold by the same retailers demanding low prices on grapes.
When we were out finding appropriate retailers to come to the Global Grape Summit, we actually had a lot of trouble identifying retailers deeply knowledgeable about grape varieties. It is not clear than many consumers know much about them either.
So, it is not surprising that, in the absence of varietal knowledge, the industry should fall back on traditional produce marketing strategies such as price.
One wonders if Driscoll’s in the berry industry didn’t take a path that the grape industry may yet need to take. There are few retailers, and even fewer consumers, who can identify strawberry varieties they prefer. But many will tell you they prefer Driscoll’s – even paying a premium for it.
In any case, Rupert is both expert and honest and will help us think through these issues at the Global Grape Summit.
Any questions, let us know here.
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And, of course, register for the Global Grape Summit here.
Let us engage and find the path that will increase grape consumption and thus help the whole supply chain!