Vazha, Rezo and Misha are standing at the large old Soviet trucks on the highway in Chalaubani, Kakheti, waiting to be hired by farmers to help harvesting grapes. Most of the people waiting there at the same time are farmers themselves, but since this year’s vintage was almost a nightmare for them, they had to somehow earn more money to make a living.
Many villages in Kakheti talk about last year’s vintage as if it were a fairytale. Grape prices were the highest they had been in years.. Predicting a similar harvest this year, many wine growers took out loans to expand their vineyards and production. However, amidst the rapid devaluation of the Georgian Lari at the end of 2014 and the drop in wine exports, many people have been unable to recoup the money they invested. The government issued a subsidy to help with the costs, but it has not been enough for some.
“The vintage has always been a celebration, a pleasant tradition for us, but this year we don’t feel festive,” explains Vazha, a local in Kakheti.
Vazha sold five tons of grapes immediately after the harvest in an attempt to avoid paying a late penalty on a loan he took out last year to pay for pesticide. Now he has only two tons of grapes left to sell on the market to help cover the remaining loan payments and feed his family.
Vazha’s grapes are selling for less than half the price they sold for last year, and he explained that after paying his field workers and covering shipping costs, he has been left with nothing. In order to pay back the rest of his loan and buy firewood for the winter, he is hiring himself out as a fieldworker.
“There are farmers selling grapes for 50 tetri. What can a farmer do? People are disappointed, and some have decided to sell their land,” Rezo said.
The vintage in Kakheti ends in October. Pickers have come from all over Kakheti to try and find work in the last days of the harvest. Some even sleep in abandoned wagons to be the first available workers.
“A man came minutes ago and four women agreed to work for 40 lari in total to at least cover the cost of their trip [to come here],” Tina interjected. She and three other women have been sitting here since morning. It’s been three days, and they still haven’t found work.
Across the street, Mamuka Pridonishvili harvests white grapes. He hired about 15 pickers for 20 lari each per day, a standard payment at the end of the vintage.
Leila cleans herself up and gets rid of her hat to look nice for the picture.
Leila came all the way from Dedoplistskaro, in the eastern most part of Kakheti, to earn money because her own vintage was disappointing.
“Today I got lucky,” she says, smiling and posing for a picture while holding a beautiful bunch of grapes. Others joke that she will be a celebrity when people see her photo on the internet.
It takes more than a half a day for these people to pick seven tons of grapes.
Women are picking while men load buckets on to a truck.
A week before Mamuka Pridonishvili began to harvest his grapes, Alika held a traditional Rtveli on his farm.
Despite this year’s problems, Alika’s family and a few of their workers organized this traditional regional celebration.
While the workers pick grapes, a grandmother prepares a traditional Supra, or feast. When they finish the day’s work, the elder men prepare mtsvadi, a type of Georgian barbeque, for the meal. In the meantime, Nini, the youngest one present, spends the day sneaking grapes.
Manavi’s wine from last year’s harvest is brought to the feast. The head of the local municipality and guest from the nearby winery join the feast. While the grapes are being packed and shipped to the plant, toasts and songs can be heard.
Alika and his father have owned their vineyard for nearly 15 years, and are thankful to the previous owners.
“I love the land. I love the grapes we harvest here every year,” Alika says. Despite being dissatisfied with this year’s grape prices, he still feels optimistic about next year.
“I plan to leave one ton for myself to make wine. My wife’s sister is getting married, and we’ll have other celebrations when we will need wine. It’s Kakheti; it can’t be another way,” he said smiling.
After the feast, Levan and Beso give a tour of the local winery at which they work, explaininghow grapes are purchased, weighed, and then sent to the sorting and squeezing machinery.
This year’s Rtveli began with massive demonstrations at the local government headquarters of farmers demanding higher prices for their grapes, with some farmers even threatening to cut their vineyards down. As a result of all the pressure, wine factories were allowed to accept grapes at an accelerated rate, but nothing was done about the prices.
Wine factories this year paid 35-70 tetri per kilo of grapes, and the government issued a subsidy for an 15-35 tetri per kilo. Prices and subsidies are based on the type of grape, and in the end the maximum amount a farmer could receive for a kilo of grapes was 85 tetri.
In the past, white grapes would typically sell for 1 lari per kilo. Red grapes sell for higher, selling for more than 2 lari in 2014.
2015 has brought both a drop in the value of the local currency, and a drastic drop in wine exports. Due to the crisis in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia, at the start of 2015 wine exports were down 67% from the previous year.
Vazha, Rezo, and Misha stand in circle with no hope to be hired today.
“Well, we threatened to cut down our grapes, but who would do that? …No poor person can do something like that,” Rezo said, adding that most farmers here tend grapes their whole live and can’t do anything else.
The discussion turns political, and the men promise not to vote for representatives from either the current or previous governments.
Tina and the other women stop a marshutka to go back home.