Grape farmers raise a toast to wine industry

Grape farmers raise a toast to wine industry

Grape farmer Arun More, a farmer in Nashik, Maharashtra’s equivalent of the famed Napa Valley of California, is a happy man these days. After years of struggle, he says he has started getting a fair remuneration for his efforts.

That’s because, as Indians start to drink a lot more wine, farmers in Maharashtra and especially in Nashik and Baramati, are now being wooed by a nascent wine industry with all sorts of promises and deals to produce more winery grapes. And this is great news for the likes of More, whose table grape prices were very much at the whims of demand and supply.

Back in 2001, only 50 acres were producing wine grapes. These days, at least 5,000 acres of vineyards are cultivating winery grapes in 2007 compared to a few hundred acres in 2004, said Jaydeep Kale, co-ordinator of the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation’s Wine Park Initiative, which says it helps grape farmers set up wineries at costs that are roughly half of what it would cost to set them up independently.

The wine park project is operational in Nashik and Sangli with seven small wineries. The state has 52 wineries and some 13.2 million litres of wine will be made in Maharashtra this year, estimates Kale.

“It is not unusual these days for farmers to be visited by representatives of wineries who are looking for an assured supply of winery grapes to feed their wineries, and I am finally getting a fair price for my labour," says More.

Vijay Mallya’s UB Group, for instance, is readying a February launch of the first phase of a one million bottle winery effort. The company is cultivating 300 acres of grapes on its own but plans to have another 1,000 acres of grapes, especially of the French varieties, under cultivation to supply its first phase.

“We have already arranged 600 acres of supply with farmers in the region and hope to tie-up the remaining 400 in next one year," says Abhay Kewadkar, CEO of UB Wines, the wine business arm of Mallya’s United Spirits Ltd. “We offer anything between Rs25 and Rs35 per kg, depending on the quality and our brand ensures that we get an assured supply through long-term contracts with farmers."

In its second phase, UB Wines plans to produce five million bottles of wine over five years.

Champagne Indage Ltd, one of the pioneers in the Indian wine market, has a capacity of 12 million litres but is targeting 17 million litres, and is starting a new winery at Baramati.

The company gets its supply from 6,500 acres of grape cultivation—owned, contracted or leased—employing 2,000 farmer families.

Maharashtra produces Thomson seedless, a variety of table grapes, though many of its farmers are now cultivating grapes that can be used to produce Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Zinfandel and Shiraz wines. In 2006, Maharashtra produced 11 lakh tonnes of grapes.

Table grape growers are susceptible especially because prices can drop to as low as Rs8 a kg at the retail level from the usual glut during March-April, when most of the crop is harvested.

While exports to Europe can be lucrative as the farmers can get as much as Rs40 per kg, European regulations require farmers to adopt Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) while exporting agri commodities and most Indian farmers aren’t equipped to do so.

The state’s agricultural market produce committee has now started GAP training for farmers but it is a time-consuming and expensive process, with training alone costing as much as Rs60,000 per farmer. There are other factors as well behind table grape producers’ shift to wine grapes.