And unlike those grown in Italy and California, the Chilean muscat grape is seedless, “and it’s delicious,” says Karen Brux, managing director, North America for the San Carlos, Calif.-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.
Promoting grapes might not seem sexy, Brux says, “but if (retailers) can run a grape promotion, and within that, highlight something as unique as muscat grapes, then it’s a whole different story.”
The muscat’s biggest drawback is probably its short season—basically March to May, says Steve Pearson, sales manager for Bengard Marketing Inc., Rancho Dominguez, Calif.
Jac Vandenberg Inc., Yonkers, N.Y. and North American Produce Buyers Ltd., Toronto, are among other muscat importers. About 85% of the Chilean muscat grapes exported to North America come from one growing operation, Santa Elena near Santiago, says Larry Davidson, president of North American Produce.
What are muscats, anyway?
The muscat grape actually is primarily a seeded wine grape, Pearson says. The seedless Chilean variety was specially bred to be eaten out of hand. “It’s definitely a different-tasting grape from any other grape out there,” he says. It has a floral taste with a high brix level—20 to 24 versus 16 to 20 for most grapes.
Although it might appear to be a brownish color, it’s actually a pink on
green. Some buyers prefer a high-color grape, but you can’t judge the grape by its color, Davidson says. The muscat is hard to grow, and it’s not a high-yielding variety, but it’s worth the effort.
“It’s the absolutely, best-eating grape hands down, bar none,” Davidson says.
Popularity is only increasing
“Demand for the variety has grown well beyond volume that we have to sell,” Davidson says.
The variety came about because the Chilean table grape industry wanted to expand its seedless market, Pearson explains. “This specific muscatel grape was developed to be a different item in the market
back in the early 2000s,” he says. “It took about five years to get any
kind of momentum.”
“This grape really stood out and kind of knocked your socks off because it was so different,” he says. It’s still a niche item, Pearson says, but “sales on them have been very good, especially the last six or seven years.”
Upscale Chains like Whole Foods Market and California-based Gelson’s Market and Bristol Farms now feature them on ad.
“They’re promoting them as an ad item instead of as a specialty item,” Pearson says.
Bengard is “making headway” getting muscats into more mainstream chains like Ralphs and Safeway. Once he gets them in store, Pearson is convinced consumers will love the taste and come back for more.
But they don’t come cheap, because they’re costly to grow. While a typical box of grapes might have an f.o.b. price in the mid- to low $20 range, Chilean muscats demand a price that ranges from $30 to $35.
“Pricing has to be high to make it profitable,” Davidson says.
Bengard, which was importing 40,000 boxes in 2010, now brings in 60,000 boxes to the U.S. each year. That number could grow as new avenues open up and new customers are added.
A few varieties of seeded muscat grapes from Italy are also available in the U.S., and California has a seeded variety but growers are working on developing their own seedless version, Pearson says.
Despite the fact that they’re a premium-priced table grape, most retailers request muscats packed in bags rather than clamshells. One retailer actually displays them loose so shoppers can pick up their own bunches, Pearson says. Although the muscat is a good storage grape, it’s softer than most grapes and eventually will break down because of its high sugar level.
Although the muscat’s popularity continues to grow, it’s a slow growth. Pearson says the retail base for his muscat program is made up of a handful of chains, but he tries to add three or four new customers every year.
North American Produce has sold muscats for five years, but while they’ve always been popular with independent retailers “who understand the variety,” they’ve been garnering attention from major retail chains over the past two years, he says.
Davidson hopes to expand his distribution, but he has to be careful because of the limited supplies. “You can very quickly outstrip the volume you have when you start to open it up on a grand scale,” he says. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
Pearson expects the industry’s shipments to eventually peak at about 200,000 boxes.
“It will never be a high-volume item,” Pearson says, but he adds, “It’s not a hidden gem any longer.”