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It Rains Trouble for Grapes in Maharashtra

Posted: Saturday, 27 November 2010 10:38

Feature: It Rains Trouble for Grapes in Maharashtra

This year again the  post monsoon, unseasonal rains have been causing havoc in the grape growing region of Maharashtra including Nashik, Baramati and Sangli, destroying the crops and causing Downey mildew which if not controlled will affect the quality, and with no hope for the growers to expect higher prices for the remaining crops which might be 30-40% lower than last year they are a troubled lot, writes Subhash Arora.

It has been raining continually for weeks now making it difficult to assess the damage. Ravi Gurnani, Director of the small -sized York Winery informs delWine, ‘the rains have been quite persistent. They've been a lot more than last year for November -December. So I expect yields to be low again-maybe even lower. Still a wait- and- watch situation as it may rain again.’

Although most of the grape growing area has been hit by rain, some people have been luckier than others. Yatin Patil of Vintage Wines, makers of Reveilo wines, belongs to this category. Fortunately, we had pruned just in time and flowering has started-we might have lost around 5% of the crops.’ Was it his planning that saved him? ‘No, it was just plain luck,’ says Yatin who owns 100 acres of vineyards and along with his wife Kiran, known for his passion for quality wines.

Rains spell bad news for grape growers but it may not be as bad for the winery owners who are still saddled with high inventories and tanks full of wine due to the recession. Rajeev Samant, CEO of Sula says, ‘The news is bad- 30% crop loss so far and may rise further. This after 50% loss last year! And expenses have shot through the roof because of additional preventive sprays against downy mildew. For the first time bunch rot is also a possibility. Unfortunately it is very bad for the growers but not so bad for the wineries. The problem of oversupply is correcting itself very quickly.’

Jagdish Holkar, President of the All India Wine Producers Association is more pessimistic about the expected devastating effect of the crops. ‘I think about 60-65% crops have been damaged. The loss has not been as harmful to wine grapes as the trellis systems like Vertical Shoot Positioned (VSP) being used here are protective against rains but eating grapes have been very badly hit. ’ He adds, ‘rain had been damaging last year too but this year it was also much stronger.’ He expects fruits in about 2000 acres to be destroyed out of the total of around 8000 acres.

‘The farmers were already dreading the slump in terms of purchase by the wineries as had happened last year but they have already been struck with this ‘asmaani’ attack before that time’ he says while reiterating the demand of the Association for interest rate reduction for the growers and wineries to 8.5-9%; this has been apparently promised by the government and politicians on many occasions but never implemented. He expressed anguish at the indifference and lip-service of the government and bureaucrats towards the nascent industry.

Rain effect on quality

So how will the quality of the crop be affected this vintage? There is a consensus that cost of pesticides will be undoubtedly at least three times the usual to handle the mildew problem. With increased humidity causing Downey mildew, there is a difference of opinion among the growers on how much the quality would be affected. While most agree that unless the onslaught of the unusual rains continues, the mildew was still controllable, Holkar is not as optimistic. ‘There is a limit to how much it can be controlled and I think the quality of the grape will be affected and one would have to be selective,’ he says.

Abhay Kewadkar, Business head and Chief Winemaker of Four Seasons Winery in Baramati says that although Sangli may not have been as badly affected as Nashik, the whole of Baramati taluka has suffered badly. He estimates bigger loss of white grapes than the red. He places the loss at 25-30%, ascertaining the quality would need to be watched and there is still uncertainty about it.

Price Factor for Vintage 2011

And what will be the effect on prices, one wonders. Unfortunately for the farmers, no vintner feels that the wineries would be affected much as the growers will not see a jump in the price like they did a couple of years ago. In fact, there is a lack of empathy for the growers at the moment for the simple reason that a couple of years ago when the industry was in an expansion mode with unprecedented demand the farmers exploited the situation, breaking all agreements and contracts that became worthless-and the wine quality also suffered. The prices shot up from Rs.20-25 a kg to as high as Rs.40-45 with an ever- growing opinion that the growth of Indian wine industry may be restricted because of shortage of grapes.

‘Last year the prices went down to as low as Rs.15 a kg, with many farmers obliged to let the fruit drop,’ says Abhay. This kind of fluctuation does not bode well for the industry. And how can the wineries respect the agreements when the demand is down?’ He however hopes that the maturity would set in after this cycle and both the growers and wineries will learn to respect the agreements. He expects the prices to be Rs.20-25 a kg for Chenin and Rs.25-30 a kg for Sauvignon with the reds averaging also around Rs.25 kg-more or less the prices that existed 3 years ago.

Gurnani of York Winery also feels there will be no increase in price. He says, ‘our prices are fixed with the contract farmers, so we won’t be affected. As for the freelancers, many of them have actually removed their vineyards. So despite the loss of yield due to the rains and the resulting shortage in grapes, I don’t foresee a rise in prices due to the existing glut of wines.’

Kewadkar is uncertain of the quality of grapes at the harvest time. In fact, he says ‘we are watching the quality before deciding how much to buy and produce this year. We shall take a call in January only after looking at the grapes. I am afraid the proper maturity of grapes might be an issue, like it was last year for Viognier which we had to reject due to improper maturity.’

Gurnani agrees. He says, ‘we will only know the effect on quality once the bunches start to get fuller and reach towards maturity. One of the converse effects is that the lower yield can potentially give more concentrated fruit.’

While it is too early to assess the damage due to the unseasonal rains which are more devastating than last year, better estimates will be available in a few days-provided the  rain calls it a day. Statements made by politicians including the recently installed Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan indicate that some help package might be available to those who have suffered damages, including grape crops. But for the moment rains have spelt troubled for the grape growers of Maharashtra.

Subhash Arora


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