I HAVE to admit: I didn’t know that grapes grow in the Philippines. The possibility of grapes growing in the Philippines in a commercial quantity did enter my mind quite a few times in the past, but I quickly dismissed the idea as fast as the idea popped in my mind because, I thought, grapes are no ordinary type of fruit and they require cool climate and very fertile soil to thrive. They couldn’t possibly thrive in a tropical country like the Philippines, could they?
Oh, but they could, after all! I found out two weeks ago when my husband Raff and I tagged along with media colleagues Angelo Comsti and Sasha Uy of spot.ph, as well as Chef Heny Sison, Destileria Limtuaco president Olive Limpe-Aw, and restaurateur and cookbook author Amy Besa, upon the invitation of Agriculture Undersecretary Berna Romulo-Puyat, on a tour of grape farms in La Union.
The group met at the Clark Air Hangar along Andrews Ave. in Pasay City, where two small planes were waiting to take us to San Fernando Airport in San Fernando, La Union. The flight took only 45 minutes, and before we knew it, we were already cruising along the main road of Urayong, Bauang, La Union, on our way to the first grape farm we were visiting.
KING OF GRAPES
Our first stop was Lomboy Farms, which started it all for La Union. Avelino Lomboy personally welcomed Usec Berna and the group with a generous sampling of Cardinal grapes harvested from his 20-hectare vineyard in La Union. Besides showing the group other fruits that grow on his farm, such as guapple (and sweets made from it) and Red Lady papaya, he also gave the group an overview of how Lomboy Farms pioneered grape growing in the province.
Known as the King of Philippine Grapes, Lomboy, the youngest child in a brood of eight and wanted to change the agriculture landscape in La Union, began planting grapes in 1972. He acquired 20 grape cuttings from Cebu and planted them in his backyard. After a year of experimenting with grape growing techniques, his vines finally bore fruit. Grapes, he found out, actually loved long dry seasons, and La Union had consistently long dry seasons.
Inspired by his initial success, Lomboy planted more vines and experimented with other grape varieties aside from the Cardinal variety of table grapes that thrived in his farms, until they grew to a total of 300 vines. His grape growing business took off in the late 1980s, so that he had to also acquire farm properties in other parts of the country to grow more grapes. It reached a point when Lomboy Farms was supplying 90% of the grapes in the country.
Then, in 1990, imported grapes came in and, being significantly affected by this, Lomboy Farms had to diversify and start planting other fruits, too, aside from grapes. So the guapples, papayas and mangoes came to be. Lomboy Farms decided to scale down operations in La Union, where it had already created jobs for grape growers and propagated the grape growing business, so that today, a number of Lomboy’s relatives and former employees also manage pocket grape farms of their own. Together, they produce a huge volume of grapes in La Union, but the quantity, it seems, is still not enough to enable them to supply locally grown grapes beyond their usual Tarlac and Baguio markets.
After a long chat with the King of Grapes and partaking of the native late-morning merienda he had laid out before us, the group proceeded to a second grape farm, whose thriving vines that hug six-foot-tall posts and overhead trellises were teeming with bunches upon bunches of luscious red Cardinal grapes ready for the picking. Here, we got to experience grape-picking. Armed with a pair of scissors and a plastic basket and assisted by an ever-helpful farm hand who points out dark red grape bunches that are ripe for the picking, you get to harvest your own grapes, have them weighed and then pay for your delicious loot before leaving. Grapes in La Union sell for as low as Php110 per kilogram to about Php150 per kilogram, depending on the season.
PICK AND PAY AND TOUR PACKAGES
The same Pick and Pay concept can also be found at Gapuz Grapes Farm, the third and last grape farm that we visited during the grape farm tour with Usec Berna Romulo-Puyat. It was, in fact, Joe Gapuz of Gapuz Grapes Farm who first thought of offering Pick and Pay to visitors as well as creating grape farm tour packages with meals under the canopy of grape vines in his farm to give people a more rounded and unique experience in his farm.
Joe Gapuz, a grandson of the King of Philippine Grapes Avelino Lomboy, actually lived in California for a long time, but he returned to the Philippines in 2010, headed for his hometown Urayong, Bauang, La Union, and started his own grape farming business. More than just selling his 2.5-hectare farm’s produce, he wanted people to experience what grape farming was all about and hopefully understand and appreciate it more afterwards.
Gapuz thus thought of offering grape farm tours with meals, packaging it at Php1,500 for 10 people with a generous spread of food, including a Lechon Turkey. A picnic-like long table is setup under the shade of a canopy of vines bursting with grape bunches, and food, including a generous sampling of grapes harvested from the farm, is laid out for the taking. Groups of 20 to 30 persons touring the farm can even order a Lechon Baka for a minimal fee, so imagine what kind of feast – and fun – touring groups would have at Gapuz Grapes Farm.
What’s more: Gapuz also sells grape cuttings to visitors who are interested in giving grape growing a go in their own backyard.
The grape farm tour in La Union ended with a sumptuous lunch in the seaside home of La Union Governor Ortega, after which we boarded the small planes that took us back to Manila. Exactly 45 minutes later, at mid afternoon, we landed in Manila – and it was as if it were just another regular working day for all of us.