Georgian Vineyards in Ferment

Vine-growers’ anger at depressed market conditions spills over into political row.

Georgian Vineyards in Ferment

Vine-growers’ anger at depressed market conditions spills over into political row.

Every day, whether it’s hot or cold, Leri Lazashvili walks the two kilometres from his house to the family vineyard with a hoe over his shoulder. His sunburnt features are proof of a long life of labour.

Now 78, Lazashvili has spent his whole life working in the vineyard he inherited from his father in Gurjaani, the heart of eastern Georgia’s wine country.

“It’s a special feeling when you take care of a vine all your life as if it were your own child,” said Lazashvili. “I’ve spent less time communicating with my family than with this vine. I confided all my secrets in it. It would listen to me, and when I couldn’t help crying out of anger at life, it seemed to cry too and try to soothe me. However moody I was, I had only to come here and I would be gripped by optimism.”

This year, Lazashvili has harvested four tonnes of grapes from his one-hectare plot – a record harvest compared with previous years. But there is a problem -- he has no one to sell his bumper crop to.

Wiping away a tear, he is about to cut down his vines.

In the eastern region of Kakheti, where viniculture goes back to ancient times, many growers are facing the same dilemma - whether to destroy their vines because of poor sales.

Vineyard owners in Kakheti have been hit hard by the Russian economic embargo on Georgian wine and other products. Russia used to be the main market for Georgian produce, but all imports ceased after it imposed an economic embargo in 2006. Although Moscow cited concerns about quality and hygiene standards, the move came amid deteriorating relations between the two states.

Despite an aggressive marketing campaign for Georgian wine in countries as far afield as China, and increased sales in other post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine, the gap has not been filled.

A vineyard like Lazashvili’s costs 1,500 to 2,000 laris (900 to 1,200 US dollars) a year to maintain, and in theory should provide enough income to last the whole year. But Lazashvili says he cannot break even, let alone turn a profit.

Georgia’s opposition has accused the authorities of failing to support the wine industry, while the government responds that the system by which farmers sell their crop to the wineries has worked well this year.

Visiting eastern Georgia on October 15, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili said the country, and Kakheti in particular, had stood proud and refused to cave in despite the Russian sanctions.

“I would like to invite President Putin, that great protector of Georgia, to come here - we would be glad if he would come here and taste our wine,” said Saakashvili in a defiant televised speech. “I would like to invite Russia’s hygiene officials and all those Russian generals who have been rooting so ardently for Georgia. I would like to bring here all those who initiated the embargo, so they can see that Georgia has not been defeated, it has not fallen to its knees, and is invincible. Kakheti proved this last year and will prove it again this year.”

The government says it has been acting to protect the industry. The agriculture ministry has claimed success for a centre it set up in the Gurjaani district for the duration of the grape harvest, to put buyers in contact with farmers.

“The crop is up 70 per cent on last year, reaching 200,000 tonnes,” said the centre’s head Akaki Sikharulidze. “The grapes are being bought by factories and various companies. Some 60 per cent of the crop has been sold to date.”

Some growers like Shalva Omsarashvili have been lucky enough to find buyers. He harvested 10 tons of grapes and has sold them all. “I don’t know what problems other farmers have had with shifting their produce but I am very happy with this harvest,” he said.

However, prices are lower this year, with a kilogram of grapes typically selling for between 18 and 50 tetri (10 to 30 cents) compared with prices ranging between 50 tetri and one lari (30 to 60 cents) last year. Omsarashvili said he got 40 tetri per kilo for one consignment.

The depressed prices have driven some growers to despair. Last week, several Georgian television channels showed a Gurjaani farmer called Avto Kalabegashvili chopping down a young vine with an axe, reportedly because he could not get a fair price for his crop.

The report led to bitter exchanges between the opposition and the government, and a stand-off between two TV companies. The day after the broadcast, the pro-government station Rustavi-2 accused Imedi – an opposition channel owned by outspoken businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili – of paying the farmer 1,500 dollars for exclusive rights to film him destroying his vineyard. Pro-government politicians concluded that the Imedi report was staged as part of a wider campaign to sow gloom.

However, other media including this IWPR correspondent witnessed the incident, not just the Imedi camera crew.

“The authorities drove me to this decision,” said Kalabegashvili,. “They set a price of 40 tetris per kilo of Saperavi [grape type] and now they won’t pay that either. I was told at the factory that they’d pay me some of the money next May. I’d be better off sowing grass and selling the hay – there’s more demand for it here.”

Opposition politicians say farmers need more support from the state. The leader of the Conservative Party, Zviadi Dzidziguri, called on the government to give long-term subsidies to landowners.

“If government believes that Georgia’s wine-making culture should be preserved, parliament should assign a subsidy of 100 million [lari or 61 million dollars] from the budget as soon as possible,” he said. “Otherwise, Georgian wine-making will disappear.”

Officials at the agriculture ministry say there is no money in the national budget for subsidies. Minister Petre Tsiskarishvili has advised Kakheti’s farmers to plant grape varieties that are cheaper and easier to maintain, instead of the more prestigious Saperavi and Rkatsiteli types which are more demanding and are not selling so well.

Today, Saperavi grapes – which give their name to one of Georgia’s most famous red wines – lie rotting in Kakheti.

“No one has taken our problems to heart,” said Zviadi Papiashvili, who lives in the village of Samtskaro. “The authorities have left us angry. What are we to do with the crop? I will be forced to feed it to my pigs.”

Zviad Ruadze is a reporter for 24 Hours newspaper

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