I therefore undertook grape vine management with some chutzpa and aplomb that usually accompany all prideful ventures. I figured: these vines have been here for 80-90 years. They have either had perfect care or they have had a combination of fickle and perfect care over those many decades: how much harm can I do? So, armed with my trusty Felco #8 pruners and some gloves and a hat, I set out on a windless, sunny, warm, snow-less February day and started pruning.
Don’t get me wrong: I had studied all winter, being now on nodding familiarity with such terms as “four-arm kniffen,” “trunk,” “cane,” “node,” and “spur” as understandable concepts, at least in a book. Out I went, and I was immediately overwhelmed. I needed to take a deep breath, and then pull out a single cane (branch), count out 5-7 nodes (leaf bumps), then cut. Each trunk (each grapevine) had approximately fifty such canes, so cut I did, ending up with quite a pile next to each trunk. THEN I went in and cut out the canes, separating them one by one, so that there were only about 18 per trunk. Whew. Now, well, now I only had another 45 or so other grapevines to trim.
I came inside after all that work and, two days later, found I had developed the most amazing case of poison ivy.
As I look back to that first trimming, I remember how good it felt to get out of the house alone for such a long stretch of wintertime. It was not hard work, really, but it required my concentration. I put in all this hard work, and I had no idea even what KIND of grapes these were.
We found out later that year that the grapes were slipskin juice grapes. Yep: This farm, like tons of others in the area, supplied grapes to Welch’s, the grape juice company. So the majority of the grapevines are Concords, or purple jam grapes, with the rest being Niagaras, or white juice grapes. Both varieties are American grapes: variants of Vitis labrusca, the native fox grape.
In the U.S., until the early 1960s or so, the grape of choice for wine grapes were American cultivars. It’s only since then, thanks to clever California growers, that the European grape, Vitis vinifera, began to be readily grown and cultivated as wine grapes. It seems there were many attempts to cultivate V. vinifera before the ’60s in this country, but there were also as many failures.
So it was with some chagrin that we harvested our first year’s crop: what good are these things, except for jam and juice, I thought. (Can’t we, you know, make wine?) Admittedly, we had taken a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward the grapes that year: let us see what bugs get them before we resort to bug warfare. My husband did set out some rather effective Japanese beetle traps, but whether they simply attracted bugs to them to be trapped or actually moved the bugs away from the grapes remained a mystery.
The second year, an April frost hit, killing all the new grape blossoms.
This year, though, we had done more homework. My husband had spread milky spore around the root systems of the grapes the autumn before. We had diligently pruned and mulched and weeded around the vines. And, once the Japanese beetles showed up in July, my husband sprayed some kaolin clay on the leaves, creating an unpalatable barrier for the beetles. He reapplied it once after one heavy rain. We had a banner harvest. Two vines yielded a 60-pound wheelbarrowload of grapes for the house. We have about ten gallons of frozen juice in our chest freezer, prefrozen in small three-person portions, for use all winter. There is more jam downstairs that we can eat. And we had the middle school kids at our daughter’s school come and pick the rest. They made juice out of them, too, selling the jars for $4/quart.
But no wine for us yet. I need to psych myself up for a whole new series of terms: carboy, mast, yeast, hydrometer…the winter is long, and there’s always next season. Winemaking: How hard can that be?