February 19, 2019

Success with Grapes … and Pliny the Elder?

Concord grapes

Janine Pineo Photo | Concord grapes

• By Janine Pineo •

Don’t confuse me with Pliny the Elder.

He’s a Roman.

I’m not.

He died at Mount Vesuvius.

I rarely drive by Mount Katahdin.

Anyway, this naturalist and writer (there you are, I do claim to write) was kind of a grape expert a couple millenniums ago, cataloging 91 varieties of grapes, detailing methods on training grapevines and then nattering on about a few dozen kinds of wine.

Trust me, I am no Pliny the Elder.

I planted four grapevines a few springs ago, envisioning a verdant row wending its way along the crest of the back lawn, the clusters of grapes glistening like jewels in the autumn sun.

Two were Concord grapes — seedless because there’s nothing I dislike more than spitting grape seeds. The other pair was a variety whose name and color I long ago forgot, if only because both vines died the first winter.

Despite reading the pamphlets exhorting the virtues of intensive pruning every year, I didn’t touch the Concords after that first winter.

I couldn’t.

They were so small I was afraid to prune them. My fears were cemented when one of the Concords succumbed.

So the remaining grapevine escaped my pruning wrath to do its own thing. My defense is that somewhere in the world grapes grow just fine without any interference from a shears-wielding gardener.

How did the out-of-my-control Concord pay me back this year?

By producing about a dozen little clusters of grapes.

The first clue came in odd-shaped cones that sprouted in the spring. As the days progressed, the cones formed green pearls that soon grew into recognizable grapes.

Sloth triumphed.

But I shall not rest on my laurels. My family planted more grapevines this year, and they intend to do the right thing and prune, prune, prune. I intend to recommend caution, as I did when the apple trees were small and every book said to prune and I couldn’t tell a fruit bud from a leaf bud. (I still can’t, but the trees have outsmarted me and are producing apples despite my ignorance.)

Viticulture, or the cultivation of grapes, is about as old as civilization, with Egyptian hieroglyphics dating to 2400 B.C. that detail grape and wine production.

The Phoenicians (they were on the eastern end of the Mediterranean where Lebanon and Syria are today) trucked the grape to France around 600 B.C. About 800 years later, the Romans were viticulturing away in the Rhine Valley. Grapes went east as well, ending up in Asia by way of India.

During that time, the methods of growing grapes matured. The process is still being refined depending on varieties, but the importance of training and pruning the vines is stressed in every grape reference I’ve read. Perhaps the most frightening recommendation is that up to 90 percent of the year’s growth can be removed to spur the next year’s crop.

I still think I’m going to kill the vines if I try that, despite reading the chapters on grapes in “The Backyard Berry Book” by Stella Otto.
If you’re interested in growing your own fruit, this is a great book to have on hand, but I can’t say I’m confident of some of the grape-pruning instructions. It has detailed illustrations on building your own trellis (I know the ones I’ve got are all wrong), lists of grapes and their hardiness zones and lots of information about pests and weeds and diseases. Then it descends into madness with a mathematical approach to pruning your grapevine.

Let’s just say you need a scale to weigh the amount of wood you prune off each vine. Then through the magic of addition and multiplication you come up with a formula equating pruned vine weight with the number of buds left on the vine. Yes, you actually must count all the buds left. If you cut off too many, whoops, better crop next year. If you cut too few, you have to remove more or the world will end.

After muddling through that one page in the book over and over again, I can say that I think bigger and better leaves a lot to be desired. I like the small grapes that grew this year — and I blame it all on the drought, not my cowardly fears.

Those little jewels slowly turned purple as the whitish coating, or bloom, on each globe deepened and the days shortened. I tried a couple of grapes long before they were fully ripe, the hint of flavor bursting into my taste buds just as the tartness made me pucker.
The older they got, the tastier and sweeter they became. I was counting the days until harvest when one day my sister went for a walk and discovered the grapes were gone.

Birds, she claimed. I went up to view the damage, only to find a few grapes hidden among the leaves. The rest of my crop was shriveled up on the ground. The drought had struck.

Next year I will confront the pruning conundrum, but I shan’t forget one tidbit that warmed my heart: Untrained grapevines can grow more than 50 feet long.

Maybe then I’ll be ready to give Pliny a run for his money and prune a snippet here and there.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in October 1999.

2012 update: Despite a difficult start, the grapes survived my influence and have been producing readily for years. The weather affects the amount and quality, but I always get something. I love them fresh because that burst of sweetness and flavor is unmatched.