It is no small thing to hold the world in the palm of your hand, let alone a cluster of worlds which all tendril off the same branch. So it is with table grapes—each bunch represents a global network of those who have entrusted their livelihood, their time, and their passion in these small civilizations.
The long story of grapes in human history is often tied to luxury. It is a tangled narrative that the family behind Giumarra Vineyards works tirelessly to unwind.
“Consumers expect and deserve to have quality grapes all year, so we’re constantly tailoring our program, with our vineyards and with our partners abroad, to bring them the best the world has to offer,” Randy Giumarra, Vice President of Sales, shares as we discuss the legacy of the fruit Giumarra Vineyards provides 365 days a year. “There are very few produce items that will still bring people into a grocery store when they’re on ad—grapes remain one of them. Suppliers and retailers have done a wonderful job of expanding the grape category by offering a consistent selection of new varieties that satisfy consumers looking for pleasurable and simpler grape flavor as well as those looking for a fun, unique experience. At one time, grapes may have had the perception of being a more regal item. That can be both a blessing and a curse, so our program is focused on helping people snack like a king no matter their budget.”
Mimi Corsaro, Vice President of Marketing and Director of Export Sales, picks up where Randy left off in further expanding on Giumarra Vineyards’ vision for differentiation as she explains how the company started out with the Grape King label—a symbol of premium grapes with room for growth.
“Over time, our mascot has evolved, and now we are testing a new, more modern version of the Grape King. Our varietal mix has also evolved to include a wide catalog of tastes with something for every palate,” she shares.
The criterion is of such importance that it is on an already extensive list of expected items for Giumarra Vineyards’ expanding cross-breeding program.
“We have some really special niche varieties that offer unique flavors and shapes, but we are focused predominantly on creating the best new ‘everyday’ grape varieties,” Randy comments. “What we are pursuing are sweet and flavorful conventional varieties that are really crunchy, juicy, and easy to eat, which we can deliver at a price point that is attractive for the consumer.”
Mimi agrees and echoes the sentiment.
“We can elevate the ‘everyday’ in a way that creates a consistent experience with varieties that are available not only from California but through our grower partners that help us provide a taste of summer all year round,” she says.
Putting the ordinary in the extraordinary, so to speak. At least, as ordinary as it can be when the day-to-day expectations of your basic table grape are to be delicious, pop-in-your-mouth good. This is the legacy that the third generation Giumarras try to uphold—a legacy of table grape growing that extends much further than biological relations or the local growing area. Family now defies geography to include business and grower partners around the globe.
“My dad, John Giumarra, Jr., used to say something that really stuck with me: ‘When you’re selling the grapes from our grower partners, you have to remember that their families’ livelihoods are in your hands.’ That is a responsibility that we take very seriously,” Randy says, wasting no time putting what he and his colleagues do into perspective.
Giumarra Vineyards has maintained the partnerships that have made the 365-days-per-year experience possible for decades. Randy and Mimi share some of these elite exporters: in Chile, there is Frucentro, which Giumarra Vineyards has worked with for over 30 years; and the Salazar family in Mexico that has worked with Giumarra Companies for 28 years. At home in the U.S., there is the innovative work done by the Karniel family, a partner in ARD for the ARRA breeding program since the 1990s; the business relationship with cousin Don Corsaro, then Director of the Giumarra Companies, which extends back to the 1960s and continues with his son John, now Chief Executive Officer of Giumarra Companies. Along with Tim Riley, President, they have grown the Los Angeles, California, wholesale business into a global marketing and service company.
“My dad, John Giumarra, Jr., used to say something that really stuck with me: ‘When you’re selling the grapes from our grower partners, you have to remember that their families’ livelihoods are in your hands.’ That is a responsibility that we take very seriously.”
Randy Giumarra, Vice President of Sales, Giumarra Vineyards
“Growers around the world are making huge investments into their crops and they export the majority of their volume to the United States,” Randy continues. “Whether it’s a family operation or a farming company with a more corporate structure, they are entrusting their financial livelihood to us. They place it in our hands, and that means a lot to the Giumarras and our team.”
Domestically, the company owns every acre on which they grow. Abroad, Giumarra depends on partners that show the same passion and diligence in their growing and post-harvest practices that has allowed them to improve varietal offerings and quality together in recent years.
“We’re working with retailers to determine how to make the transition periods better for their grape category offering. With that feedback, we’re utilizing our partnerships, new and established, to provide the best varieties from the appropriate offshore region. Our cross-breeding venture has led to some wonderful new relationships with incredible growers that are progressing at the same rate we are here in California. We deeply respect our partners in other countries. Plus, the hard work of team members Mike Rodgers, Director of East Coast Operations, and Mike Walsh, Sales, back on the East Coast, as well as our whole team here in Bakersfield, California, adds the critical service element that is as important as the product,” Randy reflects. “Every facet of this network is important if you want to add value in this competitive global grape market.”
The gift of trust given to them by both family members and a world-wide network of growers is not lost on the leaders of Giumarra Vineyards, nor is the opportunity to have seats at the table. There is a strong desire to serve and strive for more in place of the obligation one might expect in a family business.
Because, Mimi points out, the team never forgets what is at stake.
“If you look at it from a corporate structure point of view, our shareholders are our family members. My sister is a shareholder,” Mimi tells me, crystallizing this point. “I want to do the best job I can so that she, our families, and employees are taken care of. When your shareholder is a faceless someone on the trading floor, I don’t think you have that level of awareness.”
Mimi and Randy, as well as Jeff and Joe Giumarra, are part of the third generation of the founding families that built Giumarra Vineyards. This family roster also includes several additional first and second cousins like David Stanley, Vice President of Field Operations, and Robert Stanley, Packaging Manager, in addition to newest family employee and Sales Representative Alex Giumarra. Joining the multigenerational lineup too is Konrad Kuntz, son of Northern Vice President of Field Operations, Leroy Kuntz.
“The evolution of our family business here at Giumarra Vineyards is not unlike other farming family businesses, where the elder generation worked until very late in their lives,” Randy shares, and I immediately think of every time I laughingly teased anyone in our industry who said they were retiring.
Who really retires from fresh produce?
“Exactly,” Randy agrees. “And I think everybody in our generation was very eager to have our opportunity to take this company to the next level—whether it’s redevelopment in the vineyards, new varieties, branding and marketing, new software for accounting and production, or new items. Our grower relations are expanding not just in Chile, but in Peru, Brazil, Mexico, and beyond. I don’t know of any place on the globe where grapes can be grown that our collective program is not currently touching.”
Jeff, Chief Financial Officer, agrees this latest generation has not just picked up the ball but has been running with it full speed.
“Our generation has made a big investment, both financially and emotionally, to get to where we are. We’ve worked really hard to accomplish a lot. It’s safe to say we’ve put our time in,” he says with an infectious laugh that resounds through the group. It’s a laugh of agreement with a hint of understatement. “It’s fair to say we have ownership now.”
Ownership is not a concept so easy to define as looking it up in the dictionary. Desire, need, and obligation are all different words that fall under the ownership umbrella. Depending on which is the motivator, each affects how the person who takes up the mantle executes their responsibilities.
One thing that rings true around the table of Giumarra Vineyards’ leadership is that everybody wants to be there.
“It’s not a business for the fainthearted,” Jeff shares. “We’re a dying breed as one of the last relationship-based businesses. Many companies are moving toward little to no human interaction. We’re a supply-demand market which, if you’re a farmer, is not always good. You may spend X amount of dollars to put something in the ground, yet our market doesn’t always show the love back to us. There have been a lot of seasons where growers sold at or below cost based on the supply and demand of our industry.”
One who has seen more seasons than most and borne witness to the changes the company has undergone to stay ahead of the challenges is Joe, Vice President of Southern Field Operations, who served his first summer in the family business in 1964.
“We’re using new techniques and technology to feed the vine exactly what it needs, giving us superior fruit no matter the variety. We’ve seen an increase in quality and quantity per acre, while finding ways to mitigate costs as everything goes up around us,” Joe tells me, noting that there is certainly a legacy of being on the cutting-edge.
The key? Special attention and investment to each vine with a focus on a diversified portfolio. In fact, there is just one hold-up that technology has presented—in the veteran’s opinion—which echoes Jeff’s.
“Interaction is the key. It is important to show what we have to offer. Walking buyers through the vineyards, letting them experience our new varieties, and seeing the quality firsthand means a lot. Bringing the buyers closer to us and fostering a good relationship is critical for both parties,” Joe reflects.
Handing me a fresh bunch he just clipped off the vine, he smiles as I take my sample. There is a burst of flavor and hydration, followed by a smooth sweetness. I personally invite all buyers to accept any opportunity to take Joe up on his offer!
Joe says the biggest innovations—constantly transitioning out varieties to ensure a continuously better crop—have also been the most challenging as growers, by nature, tend to do what they have always done.
“Changing out varieties and reevaluating how we do things consistently is a big deal. We’ve achieved a lot and we continue to improve; constantly experimenting to see if there’s a better or faster way to grow and harvest,” he adds. “We can’t stay with the status quo because the growing environment is changing all the time, and we have to change with it.”
“We can ELEVATE THE ‘EVERYDAY’ in a way that creates a consistent experience with varieties that are available not only from California, but through our grower partners that help us PROVIDE A TASTE OF SUMMER ALL YEAR ROUND.”
Mimi Corsaro, Vice President of Marketing and Director of Export Sales, Giumarra Vineyards
Randy explains further about the time and financial investment this sort of innovation means for Giumarra as it looks to lift not just its own standing, but the entire grape category.
“Thousands of crosses are made every year, from which only a handful make it to the next stage. We may wind up with one or two each year and we make the tough decision about whether to go forward or not,” Randy says. “This year, our yield per acre with our new proprietary varieties are exceeding expectations. This is even more notable as a lot of traditional varieties for the industry are rumored to be down 10 percent or more across the valley.”
He shares that it’s a high-risk, high-reward game, because input costs versus what is expected for a certain output may not come to fruition. If not, it goes straight into the red.
“We spend years on trials to make sure we’ve done everything we can to ensure the variety will react the same way across hundreds of acres as it did in the experimental row. Our ARRAs are producing beyond our expectations during a tough year, so we’re really excited about that,” Randy smiles. “And there’s more good ones to come!”
It’s a far leap from the summer of ’64, to say the least.
“Everything was on a T trellis or no trellis,” Joe laughs when I make the comparison—spoiler alert, there is no comparison. “We had vineyards that we would train just like a tree, planted and formed by pruning. Now, we have these beautiful arbors, which can carry a lot more grapes. We went from picking 400 to 500 boxes per acre to over 2,000 to 2,500 boxes per acre today. It’s also a much more comfortable environment for our harvest crews. It’s unbelievable how much things have changed.”
Randy seconds this notion by echoing that Giumarra’s product offering has changed radically just in the past three to five years alone.
“I love our current lineup, but we’re not slowing down. We’re excited about the new varieties we have coming into production, which we feel will really set our program apart in both conventional and organics,” he says.
Making selections isn’t always easy, Randy adds, sharing that a crucial attention to detail leads to the best chance of success.
“The new varieties’ increased shelf-life is critical to those sourcing them, so it’s one of our biggest motivators in varietal selection. Not only does the fruit need great aesthetics and taste, but the varieties also have to prove that they can hold,” he shares.
Randy points out that the entire group surrounding us has, at one time or another, let product sit on their desk for days or weeks just to watch how it holds up at room temperature.
“In fact, we’re doing a test up on my desk right now,” he laughs, diving into an exhaustive list of factors a variety requires before it even makes it to taste characteristics.
With so many variables at play and one treasure for every thousand or so stones overturned, it is more than a wonder that the people that surround me not only do what they do, but do so with laughter and love.
“It’s too challenging to be just a job,” Jeff echoes, circling back to that desire to serve more than just earn a paycheck. “There is a purpose that has resulted in multiple generations in every department, and not just from the founding family. I think our definition of family has expanded.”
Giumarra Vineyards works through the challenges because the good times make it worth it. As Mimi says so succinctly: “We love it, but we work.” The produce industry’s rendition of the saying that teaches that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.
“I’m sure, for many on the outside looking in, there’s a suspicion that people go into their family’s business because it’s easy, right? It’s quite the opposite in my experience,” Randy smiles as everyone in the circle rolls their eyes at the thought. “In the farming industry, it’s never because it’s easy. There is a love and a desire that has inspired us each to follow our parents into this business.”
Because a respect and love for the work is contagious, if not hereditary. I can’t think of a better way to summarize the passion I see around me as we all stand in the heat of Bakersfield, California, laughing, teasing, and reflecting.
“All the way around, from our ancestors who paved the way to those who packed the last box, I have so much appreciation for the opportunity to make our mark and take this company to the next level,” Randy reflects. “All the wonderful people that we work with every day at Giumarra Vineyards—the retail, wholesale, and foodservice customers who support our program; our grower community and our partners in ARD and The Giumarra Companies—they all make this possible. So many hardworking people. They inspire me and make me really excited about the future.”
Wherever this amazing path leads, it will leave one thing unchanged: a handful of grapes out of a Giumarra Vineyards bag means holding not just a legacy fruit, but a global network. A bunch of worlds tied together by one vine and one mission.
To elevate the everyday.