Between the Vines: A Look Into Grape Research

July 8, 2016 04:00 PM

Food companies are constantly involved in product research, which can include consumers wants and needs as well as technology for the future.Sun World, a company celebrating its 40th anniversary, is one of the leading breeders, growers and marketers of grapes in the world. We spent a day with researchers as they work to find the next big trend.

This is Terry Bacon’s office, between grape vines in Coachella, Calif.

“It’s a little high on the acid, but I like the sugar development,” says Terry Bacon, director for variety development at Sun World International.

These are words of a researcher.  Bacon studies, develops and monitors potential new table grape varieties for Sun World, a company specializing in the crop.

“I rate the juiciness, firmness, texture. I characterize the aroma and the strength of the aroma. When we get that right and we can get the production right, that’s a winner,” says Bacon.

Perfecting new, juicy flavors takes time and science, and only a handful will ever reach consumers. “We take the pollen from the flowers of one variety, and we can collect that and store it. Then, we go to another variety and combine their traits. It’s not easy to get a winner. We do a lot of crosses. We do more than 600 cross combinations. From those, we will plant about 40,000 seedlings from those crosses,” says Bacon.

Then there’s the process of testing those new varieties commercially and obtaining approval, which can be time-consuming. “Even when you fast-track a variety, it easily takes 10 years,” says Bacon.

What Growers Need, What Consumers Want

Developing and succeeding with a new grape doesn’t just require a new taste--it also must be a reliable, consistent fruit product. “Because the cost of labor these days, we need varieties that don’t require a lot of hand work to get the bunches right and chemical inputs and things like that,” says Bacon.

While farmers are concerned about the labor involved with a grape variety, consumers often are looking for taste. 

“Consumers are so much more interested in the taste experience. They really expanded their palate, which is a great opportunity for us with some of our proprietary varieties with unique flavor profiles,” says Natalie Erlendson, a program marketing manager at Sun World.

“Today the public wants unusual flavors--even usual colors and things like that," Bacon agrees. "So that’s what we’re working on as well as the disease resistance and the ability to plant varieties organically,” says Bacon.

The company is in the process of transitioning some acres into organic based on retail and consumer demand. “Right now, there’s not enough supply of organic produce in grapes in particular to meet that demand," says Erlendson. "As we’re executing this growth strategy that we have in place, we are assuring part of that new production that’s coming online is going to be organic.”

It’s a job that’s meant for changing times for the industry and consumers living around the globe.

Sun World is having success. It has multiple patented commercial varieties now being grown on more than 23,000 acres across six continents.


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