American Humor: Foraging Wild Country Grapes to Make Homemade Wine

article image
Making wine, it turns out, is a rather more delicate affair than making homebrewed beer.

The Last Laugh shares MOTHER EARTH NEWS submitted American humor with our readers. The author shares a story about foraging wild country grapes to make homemade wine.

American Humor: Foraging Wild Country Grapes to Make Homemade Wine

Well sir, it’s high summer here in Plumtree Crossin’, an’ we’ve been smack in the middle of our annual heat wave. The of reprobates down to the Gen’ral Store is movin’ a tad slower than usual, too. Fact is, them fellers ain’t been up to much but sittin’ on they duffs an’ sippin” dandelion wine (it bein’ too hot to tangle with somethin’ as potent as Purvis Jacobs’ moonshine). With things so danged slow around here, I’m tickled to be able to bring you a story from up north a bit. The followin’ tale–reprinted courtesy of Yankee Books–was taken from Moving UpCountry (copyrighted in 1984 by its author, Don Mitchell).

Near my bathtub hangs a photograph of Robert E. Lee’s wine cellar: a musty and capacious and inviting room for tippling in his Arlington, Virginia, home. Scores of cobwebbed bottles line the cool brick walls, and casks and kegs of what look like homebrewed potables are arrayed along a counter. A fruit press and wooden stools stand near a three-legged table; plainly, one could spend some time here. “Not the sort of storage space,” the photo caption reads, “likely to be found in today’s house or apartment.”

No? I clipped that photo from The New York Times Magazine and tacked it to the bathroom wall while I was in the throes of the barn conversion project. Barns enclose a great deal of space, much of it of questionable value on account of low beams and massive framing members. What better use for a fourteen-by-six-foot corner rife with architectural booby traps than as a place to lay down wine?

As built, my ample cellar would doubtless have accommodated fifty-odd cases of wine–but I never dreamed of purchasing the stuff on such a scale. Rather, I would make wine, following a time-honored homesteading tradition. Simple matter of growing some grapes and fermenting them. Absolutely legal, too–Congress, in its wisdom, grants all heads of households the right to make two hundred gallons of wine per year. That’s Jeffersonian democracy in action!

I decided to embark upon wine making as an activity befitting a dedicated and maturing citizen-farmer. Not a matter of brew today, imbibe tomorrow, wine required time: months of fermentation, years of aging. Success at wine making would symbolize adulthood, sober acceptance of delayed gratification, and refined values.

To my neighbors, however, wine had different symbolic meanings. Their taste in booze, I learned soon enough, ran more to Seven ‘N’ Seven, rum and Coke, or various sour-mash bourbons served straight up. Wine meant effete to them. Wine meant foreigners. Wine meant snobs, and city slickers.

I recall a picnic supper that one of these neighbors dropped in on, our first summer here. My wife and I were not yet familiar with local custom which sanctions neighborly visits at mealtimes–because then one is certain of catching someone who otherwise would be off on a tractor somewhere–but discourages offering the visitor a plate. The visitor would not be so gauche as to come to eat; he has come to watch you eat, and form impressions of your diet.

We offered the man a plate.

“Oh, no,” he said, offended. We were new, and dumb; we had misread his intentions.

“Glass of wine?”

He shook his head, he made a distasteful face. And sat. We carried on. Some minutes later, when I realized he felt no urge to either leave or make conversation, I poured myself another glass.

“I see you’re wine-goers,” he commented.

Wine-goers? I was reared on the Biblical pejorative wine-bibber, and the urban vernacular wino, but here was a brand-new epithet. Wine-Boer. So be it. “Matter of fact,” I said, “I’ve thought of putting grapes in. Think they’d grow here?”

He stared, and shrugged. “Fox grapes grow. Like a bastard. They don’t ripen every year, though.”

“Why not?”

“It takes heat.”

“Maybe the soil here isn’t right?”

He scratched his beard. “I wouldn’t know.”

But I vowed I would find out. Since, after all, I could expect to now be recognized as the local wine-goer, I might as well get on with it. Research. The world’s great wine soils, I discovered, are actually poor by conventional agricultural standards. They are stony and relatively infertile lands, exposed on south-facing hills to the baking sun; these conditions force the roots of’ vines to forage deep for water and nutrients, creating hardy plants and noble wines. Where soils are notoriously rich, on the other hand, vintners can produce only vins ordinaires.

My farm boasts soils of bottomless clay. Fine clay. It is demonstrably fertile, poorly drained, and extremely difficult for roots of plants to penetrate at all, much less forage around in.

I got on the phone and ordered a truckload of gravel from the local pit.

My neighbors, I am certain, have a lasting recollection of me shoveling clay and gravel into my concrete mixer, then dumping the stuff back into holes dug deep into the earth-trying to make each small core of Vermont more like, say, Bordeaux. Most of my neighbors’ lifelong efforts have been directed toward the opposite goal; stony soils exasperate those who try to farm them. So it was reasonable that one of these dairymen should stop in to demand what the hell I was up to.

“Grapes,” I answered, pointing to five wrapped plants fresh from W. Atlee burpee’s. “French wine varietals crossed with hardy, wild American types. The latest thing.”

“What the hell you up to?” he repeated.

“Grapes like stony soil. Nothing too fertile, either.”

“Well, Lord God. You make wine?”

“I am going to try.”

But I couldn’t make wine that year, for the vines had to become established. This process required several years, though by the third summer we had a few bunches of grapes to grace our table. Not enough to ferment, though. Year four, the birds got them–untimely vacation. Year five–and by now we had the vines tied to horizontal wires on the four-arm Kniffen system–we harvested a quantity of grapes that, mashed together, amounted to roughly three quarts of liquid. A slender yield, yet perhaps auspicious. I pitched yeast into it.

To call the resulting beverage astonishing would not be inappropriate, were I to rate this wine. Nor surprising. Nor unexpected. Unfortunately, I am sorry to report that it was also undrinkable. Worst foul swill I ever tasted in my life.

Making wine, it turns out, is a rather more delicate affair than making homebrewed beer. Complex chemistry. Tannins, acids, invert sugars, good and bad and “wild” yeasts, trace nutrients–people go to school for this. I did not want to go to school. I wanted to slosh about, barefoot, in a tub of grapes, without fear of abominable consequences for the palate.

I gave the vines another year of dedicated pruning, tripling my yield of nasty wine. By now, though, I had discovered I could give the bottled stuff away. As Christmas presents, no less. A certain type of person will accept such a gift with genuine enthusiasm, then lay it down for a cool decade or so. Waiting for the right occasion. Should he ever actually uncork the gift hooch, I can always attribute its remarkable qualities to extended storage. These delicate wines, I am prepared to say, are all too easily bruised and best drunk very young.

For myself, I gave up the vineyard per se and fooled a bit with lesser juices. Strawberries, elderberries, blackberries, plums–even tomatoes, in a fit of desperation. These efforts did produce some palatable potables, but they were not cost–effective for a man attempting to fill an empty cellar. And, let’s face it, weird fruits and berries are not the main event in civilized oenology. Grapes are what it’s all about.

Then one day–a few autumns ago–my wife returned from visiting a neighbor who was making grape juice. “Out of wild grapes,” she told me excitedly. “Fox grapes. They grow everywhere.”

I recollected that fox grapes grow like a bastard.

“You just throw a bunch of grapes into a quart Mason jar, add a quarter cup of sugar, and fill the jar with boiling water. Then you cap it. Come back in a month, and you’ve got grape juice.”

“That easy?”

“The boiling water kills any yeasts or bacteria.”

“So it won’t ferment?”

“Won’t sour.” My wife had come to use these two terms interchangeably.

I thought hard–after all, fox grapes grew abundantly all around me, with absolutely no human attention required. No pruning, no four-arm Kniffen support systems. I said: “But you could ferment the same juice later, couldn’t you? Just by adding wine yeast?”

We tried it.

I am not so arrogant or self-serving as to extol the virtues of this simple vin du pays Yankee. Truth be told, I would not launch an evening’s fellowship with a bottle of the stuff. But it can be entertaining after drinking better wines, and the cellar–what is left of it, for now it doubles as a mud room–looks a damn sight better lined with dusty bottles of this sturdy, honest little potable. It costs me nothing, and its supply is inexhaustible. In vino, I have come to feel, veritas is where one finds it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Moving UpCountry is available–for $7.95, plus $1.00 shipping and handling for one copy, $2.00 for two or more–from Yankee Books, Peterborough, NH.