Tucked away on 25 acres just south of Bakersfield California, lies a unique table grape breeding program. The ARD breeding program was founded by Giumarra Vineyards Corp., which is one of the largest growers and marketers of fresh produce in the United States. The ARD breeding program is in its thirteenth year of developing new ARRA grape varieties in search of the ultimate grape.
“The ARD breeding standards are very, very high,” said Rafi Karniel, managing director for Grapa, the company which has the sole commercialization rights for the breeding program’s varieties. “We may not select as many new varieties every year, but that’s because we have very exacting standards,” he said. His father, Shachar, is a fourth generation farmer who is in charge of breeding and evaluating new varieties for the program. Adi, Shachar’s son and Grapa’s Technical Manager, who sees the exacting standards his father has when it comes to grapes, is sure there is no one who has a more discerning eye for quality.
Those standards have to do with color, texture, resiliency, the ability to withstand cold storage, but most of all, great taste. In fact, Shachar believes that taste and eating quality are amongst the most important factors.
“We’re focusing on flavor,” he said. “It’s very important that the grapes are tasty, sweet and crunchy.” But although quality of taste drives much of the development of new varieties, the Karniels are quick to note that successful grape varieties require more than that.
“The berries need to have a long shelf life, they need to be able to travel, the shape must be good, our reds must be truly red with no traces of brown, our blacks must be 100 percent black, and so on,” noted Shachar. And even as an artisan of grapes, he must still factor in economic concerns when developing new fruit.
“There is no longer any cheap labor anywhere,” he said. “So we have to come up with varieties that require minimal labor to cultivate and harvest and, in that way, are good for growers.” Because Grapa licenses the ARRA grapes to growers all over the world, Shachar must also breed varieties that can meet the demands of a diverse set of growers.
Arnold Viljoen, table grape manager for TopFruit in South Africa, works with Grapa to commercialize the ARRA grape varieties. In working with Grapa, he stressed the working relationship licensed growers enjoy when growing the ARRA grape varieties.
“Some grapes are fine if you want to grow only for the local market, but if you have to store them in a cold room, that’s a different set of circumstances,” explained Viljoen. “So we look for varieties that can be grown in South Africa and can be shipped to different parts of the globe.” He explained that Grapa continually solicits feedback to make sure that ARD provides varieties that match those needs.
Those lines of communication also extend to large chain stores, as they often know consumer habits and can help discern market demands for new products. With that information in hand, Shachar produces fruit that is of the highest quality and most economical for growers and retailers. That trifecta, a grape that is great-tasting for consumers, is easy to grow for farmers and sells well for retailers, is what he aims for. “Our success in licensing growers with the ARRA varieties is because they are easy to grow, cost efficient and are loved by the market” said Shachar. “I think that’s the total package.”
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