NEW MARKET, Va. -- Just when you think you've figured out how many products you can squeeze from a grape, along comes some others.
Several California growers are selling zinfandel vinegars, chardonnay-teriyaki marinades and black truffle-grapeseed oils with their bottled wines. That's in addition to the more traditional culinary products: jellies and unfermented grape juices, raisins, and grape leaves used for wrapping around such things as rice and lamb before cooking. (Look for Dolma recipes on the Internet.)
Landscapers also recommend grapes for their ornamental value. Train vines to climb arbors, porches and pergolas and you're rewarded with cooling shade in the summer and colorful foliage in the fall.
"(Arbors) increase our awareness of the changing seasons as the vines on them grow, flower and fruit," writes Chip Sullivan in his book, "Garden and Climate" (McGraw-Hill). "Watching the shadows dancing on the ground makes one more aware of the movement of the air from even the most gentle of breezes."
Lon Rombaugh, a grower from Aurora, Ore., likes grapes as table fruit, of course, but also for the sweet scent of their flowers.
"I love to go out to my vineyard when they're in bloom because they're so fragrant. Some (varieties) more so than others," says Rombaugh, author of "The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture."
Historians believe grapes pre-dated man, eventually becoming one of the first cultivated crops. Early growing regions were in Mesopotamia (6,000 B.C.), Egypt's Nile Delta, Greece and then Rome, where growing and processing were refined through pruning, improved filtering and storage, the National Grape Cooperative says.
Winemaking may have started by accident, perhaps after some grape juice fermented when left too long in a clay pot. Soon grapes were going from bower to bottle until wine became a staple and evolved into something of an art form for many cultures.
Wild grapes were abundant in North America when the Vikings came calling in the 10th century. They didn't call their discovery "Vinland" for its mushrooms. Yet many varieties were so tart that they required special handling before becoming even an acquired taste. "Wine was one of the first things you could produce that you could keep (preserve)," Rombaugh says. "But the colonists had to do some interesting things; boil the grapes or add salt, for example." It wasn't until development of the Concord in 1854 - and still America's predominant juice grape - that vines began appearing in millions of backyards.
"It was quite an improvement for the day," Rombaugh says of the early ripening, purple-black Concord variety. Grapes prefer well-drained soil along with plenty of sun and good air circulation. Plant the right varieties in the right place and the plants should bear long enough to provide your great-great grandchildren with fruit," Rombaugh says. "A grapevine can live for centuries. If you go to Hampton Court, in England, they have a famous old vine that has been growing from Victorian times. It's an immense thing an enormous greenhouse grape. It's been pruned and managed so much it looks almost like a tree."
Grapes should be pruned annually and while they're dormant because fruit forms only on those buds formed during the previous year's growth. Shop around for varieties hardy to your area and resistant to known diseases.
Beware insect attacks, particularly from leaf chewing Japanese beetles, aphids and mites. Rake up grape leaves in the fall to discourage over-wintering plant pests. When harvesting table grapes, trust your taste buds rather than your eyes. Grapes don't ripen after they're picked, so sample a few before cutting off any bunches.
Apples, strawberries, grapes, oranges and peaches in that order made up 69 percent of the value of all U.S. fresh market fruit production in 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. More than half of the nation's commercially grown grapes become wine, while another one-quarter are made into raisins, the USDA says. The rest are destined for juice, canning and the dining room table. California grows more than 90 percent of the nation's grapes. Washington is second, with 2 percent. While wine grapes can yield some $1,800 an acre for established vineyards compared with $270 an acre for corn, $221 an acre for cotton and $77 an acre for wheat, their cultivation poses many challenges, the Texas Department of Agriculture says.
"Establishing a vineyard costs anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 an acre, depending on size, location and improvements and that's not including the piece of land and equipment," the agency says. "Intense weather conditions and the presence of pests and disease can create headaches, crop losses and vine death."
Rombaugh dismisses as sour grapes, however, allegations that vitaculture is too demanding for the home gardener. "You're limited only by your imagination," he says. "Grapes are among the most adaptable of plants. I know of one person who trained a vine to grow up the side of a three-story building from a hole cut in the pavement. It produced a half-ton of fruit. "I also know of a fellow who trained his grapes to grow over the top of his house. He claimed it kept his house cooler although I can't imagine how he was able to pick them."
On the Net:
For more about growing grapes in the home garden, click on the University of Minnesota Extension Service Web site: http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/DG1103.html.
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