When Michael Simonetta rejoined the family business in 1984, he thought he’d spend the rest of his career selling lettuce, cauliflower, and broccoli in Sydney, Australia’s wholesale markets. Today, he travels the world as CEO of Perfection Fresh Australia in search of the next best-tasting fresh produce – including grapes.
The company Simonetta’s father founded in 1978 is now one of the country’s largest privately-owned fresh produce businesses, which owns and operates citrus orchards, berry farms, high-tech greenhouses, and table grape vineyards across the country. With recent investments, Perfection Fresh Australia is poised to expand into Asia and other international markets.
Simonetta is an industry mover-shaker who has previously shared his thoughts with the Pundit. This includes the Pundit’s Pulse of the Industry profile in 2008, and in 2010 Simonetta’s comments on the First Fresh Connections event for PMA’s Australia-New Zealand affiliate, an organization of which he was then chairman.
Simonetta shared his expertise at the 2022 Global Grape Summit last month, and Carol Bareuther, RD, contributing editor of the Perishable Pundit’s sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, talked with him on that session:
PP: What led you into table grapes?
MS: In the late 90s, we started looking at how we could differentiate ourselves from being a traditional wholesaler and how we could get more security of supply of our products. This started us searching the world for proprietary varieties and licensing the genetics of these products from principal breeders.
The first product we licensed in Australia was Broccolini. That quest of looking for products to differentiate ourselves from others led us to the grape industry. That opportunity, or coincidence, happened when I first met Sun World’s David Marguleas. We were both invited to the then PMA’s International Council meeting in Cape Town, South Africa in 2001. We started talking grapes.
Perfection hadn’t been involved in grapes before this. But David and I shared the same vision. As a result, we became a Sun World licensed marketer in 2002 and started to grow some of the Sun World grape varieties here in Australia. We’ve now moved from being not only a licensed marketer, but also growing varieties ourselves in our four main table grape production areas — one in Queensland, one in New South Wales, and two in Victoria.
PP: Any fun stories about the places you’ve traveled in search of new grape varieties?
MS: In terms of grapes, it’s pretty much all in the major table grape growing areas of the world. For example, we’ve been visiting the field trials in California now for probably 15 to 16 years.
PP: What do you look for to determine what will be the next great grape?
MS: Well, the first thing I look for is eye appeal. While I’m a grower and marketer of grapes, I’m also a consumer of grapes. So, I first look at it from a consumer perspective. You know… what it tastes like, what it looks like, its firmness, its color, so forth and so on. And, whether I think it would resonate with Australian consumers. And, also Asian consumers, because table grapes are a big market for us in other parts of the world like Asia.
Then, I look at it from a grower’s eyes. That is, how grower-friendly it is. How much work is required to grow the grapes? From planting to pruning and harvesting. How labor-friendly is it? Labor rates in Australia now are around $30 to $32 an hour (the equivalent of US $21 to $23), so we’ve got to look for varieties that are also labor-friendly.
PP: Are there universal characteristics that the global consumer looks for in new varieties? Or is each market different?
MS: Every country’s consumer is a little bit different. As an example, in the U.S., white or green grapes sell best when perfectly green, whereas in Australia a little tinge in color is acceptable, provided it’s not too much. The Asian countries like large berries, and they’ve got to be really sweet for the Asian palate. Every country has different requirements.
PP: Does that mean growing many varieties to meet all needs?
MS: Yes, but then we can’t have too much of a proliferation of varieties because then it’s not efficient. You can’t grow 20 different varieties from a cost, labor, and management perspective. It’s just too complicated. You’ve got to pick the winners. For us, ideally, that’s four or five varieties.
PP: Speaking of numbers, per capita grape consumption in the U.S. has averaged around 8 pounds for over two decades. I’m not sure where grape consumption is in Australia, but what are your thoughts on how to increase consumption?
MS: Consumption is relatively stable here too. I think we’ve got to make it easier for consumers. It’s all about convenience. I think we, as growers and marketers, and particularly from a marketing perspective, need to offer solutions so retailers can make grapes more readily available. Especially opportunities like snacking.
The other way is having more consistent varieties, which are consistently good eating, good in appearance, and available for longer periods during the season.
PP: Looking back, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the grape industry? How do these changes predict where the industry is headed in the future?
MS: That’s easy. It’s the fact that in the past 20 years, we’ve moved from seeded to an almost completely seedless market, except for one or two varieties. In Australia, the only real seeded variety that is still sold by some retailers is Red Globe.
The second change is the rise in black seedless grapes. Sun World was very much on the forefront with their Midnight Beauty. Black grapes today are much more prominent than they were even ten years ago.
PP: At the Global Grape Summit, you’ll be paired with Carlos Bon, of Groupo Alta/ Divine Flavor, Randy Giumarra of Giumarra Vineyards, and John Pandol of Pandol Bros as well as others to discuss the industry from the producer’s perspective. Could you give us a sneak peek of what you’ll speak about?
MS: From a producer’s perspective, I’ll be talking about the challenges that we’re currently experiencing. Certainly, here in Australia we’ve had three years now of very challenging climatic events, and that has made growing grapes exceedingly difficult.
Also, and more importantly, we’re struggling with the rising costs of farm inputs. It’s not just in Australia, but it’s a worldwide phenomenon that is making it very difficult, and it’s compounding the climatic issues. Then, and I think Australia more so than other countries, is a chronic labor shortage. That was one of the reasons why we had a bad year financially with our table grape farms last year. We just couldn’t get enough labor to pick the fruit when it was ready.
PP: That is certainly disheartening. Well, the last question is a fun one. If you put your consumer hat on, what is your favorite grape?
MS: My favorite grape right now is a Sun World variety. It’s called Autumn Crisp. I think it’s that I love the texture. I love the crunch and the sweetness. It’s just a great eating experience.
We’ve been fortunate to travel the world and meet many of the produce luminaries. Most are smart, often ambitious, and Michael certainly merits these accolades. He also was innovative, coming to America decades ago and seeking brands and products to introduce Down Under. He is also civic-minded, practically always heading up some association or industry initiative, and he is kind.
We remember when this Pundit was keynoting an association meeting in Australia, and we were traveling with Junior Pundit Primo, who was just 12-years-old. We were invited to dine at the Simonetta homewhere Maryann Simonetta prepared us a meal that my son and I still talk about. The meal was delicious, yes, but also because she listened to every quirky dietary preference of my son and cooked up something spectacular.
When it comes to producers around the world, we find similar stories. They are all suffering from enormous cost increases while finding retailers reluctant to raise consumer prices to compensate — meaning tremendous pressure on margins.
This panel is a “Who’s Who” of not just important, but incisive, producers. The thing to remember about consumption numbers is that, for the most part, consumption equals production. Very few grapes are just dumped. So, in this sense, consumption does not increase because producers either cannot increase production – because land, water, labor or something else is in short supply – or producers are unwilling to increase production because they don’t believe they can sell expanded production at prices that represent an adequate return on investment.
Join us and continue the conversation with us, post Global Grape Summit, to help strategize a jumpstart as to the future of the industry. How do we justify the investment required to grow and ship grapes sufficiently so that we will have enough grapes to boost consumption? How do we make sure the grapes of the future are the high quality varieties, grown well, so as to motivate consumers to buy again?