October 22, 2014

Ripening Grapes Signal End of Summer

The deep purple of Concord grapes

Janine Pineo Photo | The deep purple of Concord grapes

• By Janine Pineo •

If there is one sure sign summer is over, it is when the Concord grapes are ripe.

Part of me longs for that day when I can gather a basket of fruit, even as my heart is saddened that another summer has passed, and with it, the fruits of all my labors.

I picked the first batch of Concord grapes last weekend, the sun warm on my back as I clipped the purple bunches from the vines, the dog rolling in the grass, kicking his feet into the air in his usual devil-may-care style.

Only a few of the bunches were ripe to the point of bursting – or falling onto the ground as was evidenced by a few shriveled raisins scattered at my feet. The rest were near enough to ripe for me to make jelly or too green to pick yet.
With grapes, timing is everything.

From the moment the blossoms set to the day of harvest, nearly anything can disrupt what could be a banner crop: frost in the spring, too much water or too little water over the summer and then frost again at harvest time.

The biggest haul came six years ago when the lone vine produced almost a bushel of grapes, and I can say that I had little to do with the success of things that year. A couple of years ago, I lost all but a few grapes because I waited a day or two too long before picking them; I arrived at the arbor only to find most of them had dropped to the ground. Last year was a minimal harvest with enough to make a single batch of jelly. My guess for that miserable season was the excess amount of rain and near total lack of sun and warmth doomed the crop.

This year, I am hoping for another round of picking before this column is published, but I won’t be able to tell until I head to the arbor. Unfortunately, I have to be away for two days midweek, meaning there will be two days where the grapes may be perfectly ripe before dropping unceremoniously onto the ground.

And that will be that.

Despite the treacherous navigation to harvest, I love having a grapevine. It all started in the 1990s, when I planted four vines, with only one of the two Concords surviving. It has flourished, even withstanding gales that have blown the arbor over, vine and all. This year I finally got some really big posts to anchor the works, but only time – and weather – will tell if it will stand.
The cultivation of grapes, known as viticulture, is thought to be one of the earliest forms of agriculture on the planet. Not surprisingly, there are many types of grapes for many different uses: wine, raisins, table and so on.
But one with an extraordinary history is the Concord grape.

According to www.nationalgrape.com, the site for the National Grape Cooperative, the man called the father of the Concord was one Ephraim Wales Bull, who was born in Boston in 1806.

Ephraim seemed to have a thing for grapes, growing them as a kid and later purchasing 17 acres of land near Concord, Mass., where he started growing grapes.

The farm had sandy soil and a southern exposure – nirvana for grapevines – but the weather proved an obstacle. Harsh winters and frosts on either end of the growing season meant destruction to the crop.

But Ephraim didn’t give up. According to the site, he planted 22,000 seedlings, narrowing the field to 125 vines that he considered valuable before he discarded almost all of them.

His quest for the perfect grape was to raise a hardy vine from seed. He began with plantings from a grape found amongst his collection, tending the seedlings for six years before choosing one that was worthy.

Then, the site says, on Sept. 19, 1849, Ephraim picked a bunch of grapes that were perfect in flavor and appearance. He again planted from this vine, finally choosing the best of the crop.

In 1854, Ephraim introduced the Concord grape, named after the town of Concord.

The rest is history, living history, to be exact.

Nationalgrape.com says that alongside Ephraim’s farmhouse on Lexington Road still stands the original Concord grapevine, the parent of all the Concords in the world.

It is how I like my garden: roots deep and full of history at every harvest.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in September 2010.