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Grapes conquer mortality

My grapevines produce enough grapes to make 10 gallons of juice a year. Yet, all that juice winds up turning into feathers and bones and muscles. As soon as one of those little grapes starts to turn from green to red, bang, a cardinal or robin jumps out of the shrubbery and swallows it whole.

It’s my fault. I am a crummy vineyard keeper. Three vines grow around a small deck off the front of the house. I have another four vines along the north fence, and another on the south fence. I don’t net my grapes to keep the birds off. I don’t spray or tend. From early spring to late fall, they grow like weeds. When the grapes ripen in July, flocks descend.

I like my vines, and I like to know they are out there growing while I’m wringing my hands over indoor worries and cares. But if I were to let these vines grow past one season without a pruning, they would envelope up the house and the apple tree out front. They would cover the ground and creep in the cracks. Neighbors would complain. We would have to hack tunnels through them from the driveway to the front door, and from the back yard to our side patio. The only other plant I know will grow like this is raspberry. Let them go a couple of years and see what happens.

I have five varieties of grapes. Viticulturists and horticulturists know all but one variety as “hardy.” That is, left uncontrolled, these grapevines will take over the world.

My favorite is Baco Noir, a dark red grape. It was developed in Canada in the late-1940s. Like other varieties grown in extreme continental climates of North America, Baco produces fine wines without the foxy flavor of the Concord and Catawba. (Think of the smell of Welch’s Concord grape jelly.) To this end, vine breeders chose vitus vinifera grapes, the species from which the world’s fine wines and all European wine is vinified, as their genetic base. The particular variety was Folle Blanche, the traditional grape of Cognac and Armagnac. The breeders crossed Folle Blanche with a red variety of American River Grape (vitus riparia).

The result was a vine that produced decent quality red wines, deep red, hearty, and well-suited to aging. The vine could survive cold winters. It weathered hot summers without suffering a condition called “grape shatter,” the spontaneous splitting of grapes due to ripening too quickly. Moreover, it produced a lot of grapes—upwards of 5,000 gallons an acre in some places and depending on the care of the vineyard master.

Baco Noir produces small grapes in loose clusters. Since I don’t make wine from my grapes, I eat what the birds miss, usudon’t, which usually isn’t much—a grape or two the birds missed. But it’s a great grape. Baco Noir gets sweet and gets full with mature acid and sugar at the end of the season. I remember when I used to drink wines. I appreciated the complex and round character of a dry Baco. I’m just crazy about the juices and jellies.

Baco has a couple of characteristics it inherited from its American ancestor. It has wiry, woody roots the root louse (phylloxera), a native American bug, doesn’t like. The root louse was imported to Europe in the 19th century with American grape vines. Vinifera roots are fat and soft. Root lice love it. An infestation can suck the life from a vine in just one season. The pest devastated vineyards throughout the continent.

Europeans panicked. They began growing American grape varieties. Imagine, the great vineyards of Bordeaux planted in Concords and Scuppernongs! European growers took to these varieties and wine consumption plummeted. Vine growers needed a solution. Americans rescued European wine.

To this day, nearly all European and American vinifera grapes—Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and all the rest—are grown on American rootstock. Nurseries graft a vinifera bud onto the roots of American species vitus riparia, vitus aestivalis, vitus rupestris, or vitus labrusca. Zing! You have European grapes again. European winemaking was saved and it is to the Americans we owe the great vintages of the 20th and 21st century.

Another of my grape varieties is Leon Millot, which Eugene Kuhlmann developed in the Alsace in 1911. It, too, produces a deep red grape but the clusters are tight, like a clenched fist. It makes a flavorful wine and juice, no less tasty than it’s brother.

Here’s the deal: A man needs a machete to keep these varieties in check. Baco, in particular, grows so fast in the middle of the season, you can almost see it grow. I measured one time, just because I was curious. One Baco vine I have grew six inches in one day.

This means that every winter or early spring, I have to cut these vines back. One year, I took a tape measure to a cane to see how much growth one bud produced in a season. I came up with 54 feet. It’s amazing. Every year, I chop the canes near the feeder branches. I wind up with a trunk and two arms, each with about 15 buds. When I prune them, I fill the back of a pickup truck to overflowing.

I also have a white grape called Aurora, a white grape that produces larger grapes. It is also a vinifera x American. Some of these grape survive due to their size. The cardinals and robins can’t get their mouths around them. At least, I get a handful of them every year. This is a more well-behaved vine—that is, less hardy than the Baco and Leon. A cane from a bud only grows only 15 or 20 feet, left alone, during a season. As I do with the others, I chop it all the way back.

I also have a Concord in deference to my wife, who loves the grape. Again, birds get most of these. If I wasn’t such a slouch, we’d have jars of homemade jelly for Christmas and holidays. It’s a spindly little thing that only grows about five feet a season. What’s weird about this vine is that it exudes the Concord grape jelly smell all around it. When I prune it, the cuttings smell like jelly. Roll a leaf in my hand, jelly.

Then, I have one vine, also well-behaved, call Catawba. It’s a pink grape the birds also love. It is my favorite American grape variety. I have a great memory of standing in a Missouri vineyard after a long day, friends passing an uncorked bottle, person to person, and just drinking as if nothing was ever going to happen to us. The sun set and looked so beautiful off that wine. On the down side, I don’t remember driving my sister’s Volkswagen from Lone Jack home to Midtown Kansas City. I also don’t remember anything of that night. I woke with a head-splitting hangover.

Still, one of the great pleasures in life is a bottle of Catawba sparkling grape juice. I wish, every year, that I would take the time to tend and net my grapes so I could have just one bottle of that grape’s juice.

Now, you might ask why I even have grapes if I don’t tend them or don’t harvest the bounty they bring every year. Sure, I like feeding birds, but there must be something else.

I tended grapes during one of the finest years of my life. On a whim in the fall of 1985, I sold and threw away everything I owned and hopped a plane to Germany. I was after a job in a vineyard and found one by luck and by chance. The job was in one of the finest Mosel wineries. The vineyard in which I worked lay in a wonderfully picturesque valley just outside of the ancient city of Trier, where I took up residence.

That year, I made some of the closest friends I have. I learned a new language that I still speak today. I had romances that changed me, mostly for the good. An older couple took me in, and they are more like parents to me than my own. Their son became my closest friend, a soul mate, whose loss I still mourn six years later.

So, those grapevines around my house mean something to me, even if I don’t take care of them. Every year, I get to be young again. I rejoice in as the buds begin to open. I relive my vineyard experience when I smell the blooms that open in May. I put them to my nose, and I am once again 22, eyes wide open, unscarred, and immensely naïve.

And when I get a grape, even just one, it tastes like sunshine.

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