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The road to Venus

(article, Mike Madison)

To plant a vineyard is easier than to tear it out five years later when you’ve changed your mind. I’ve been reflecting on this lately while digging out grapevines. A few years ago I decided to add a vineyard to my farm, with the idea of growing commercially some of the unusual grapes that are seldom seen outside of specialist collections. 

The usual market grape in this area is Red Flame, a quintessential industrial grape. Its virtues, from the grower’s perspective, are great vigor and productivity, good appearance, and fruit that is famous for its durability in cold storage and long-distance shipping. The flavor and texture? Crunchy sugar water. 

My criterion in selecting grapes was to be flavor. If the vines were unvigorous, the season short, and the fruit fragile and seedy, I didn’t care. Flavor was to be the thing. My quest for flavorful grapes led me to the collection at the University of California, Davis, where I had the opportunity to sample over 260 cultivars of table grapes collected from around the world. The vines were laid out alphabetically. I started bravely one September morning with Almeria, tasting and taking notes, and by noon, when I was feeling sick from eating too many grapes, I had made it to Barlinka, the classic table grape of South Africa.

[%image "reference-image" float=right width=400 caption="Cabernet grapes on a vine." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/THEPALMER"] 

I was able to return a few times each week, and in October I finally reached Yargouti. Whatever grape I was eating at the moment always seemed the most wonderful, but I managed to narrow the field down to 20 varieties. I acquired a few bundles of cuttings and planted out a little vineyard of 500 vines.

Friends of mine in the produce business warned me, “No one will buy grapes with seeds — you’re just wasting your time.” But I didn’t believe them. God gave us molars for a reason. Eighteen of the 20 varieties I planted out had seeds. The seeds themselves have a wonderful peppery flavor when you crunch them in your teeth, adding to the already complex flavor of skin and pulp. The seeds are beautiful, too. When I was a student, a friend was writing his dissertation on fossil grape seeds from a coal mine in Vermont, and he taught me to appreciate their handsome architecture.

As it turned out, the pessimistic produce brokers were right. Grapes with seeds don’t sell. True, we have a small band of fanatically loyal customers for Golden Muscat and Rish Baba and Niabell who start phoning us as early as May, wanting to know when the grapes will be ready. But these few enthusiasts couldn’t sustain the economics of the vineyard, and so I’ve been tearing it out. 

One grape, a seedless one, turned out to be commercially successful, and we have increased our planting of it. This is Venus, a black-skinned grape that is a cross between the European Vitis vinifera and the North American Vitis labrusca. It has the foxy flavor of a Concord, with some of the lusciousness of a Black Monukka. And it’s extremely early, ready for harvest by the Fourth of July, a good three weeks ahead of Flame. Whatever fruit we leave on the vine turns to raisins, which we harvest in September. 

If I had only a little garden, with room for just one vine, I wouldn’t choose a table grape at all — it would be a wine grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. Perhaps it’s lack of imagination, or an overly developed sense of orderliness, that makes people think that wine grapes are only for wine and table grapes only for the table. True, the wine grapes have tiny berries and lots of seeds, and they are so juicy that the juice runs down your chin and all over your shirt, but the flavor of fresh Cabernet grapes is unsurpassed. And if you are patient, and leave some bunches on the vine until they have begun to wither and ferment and are struck by frost, you can enjoy a special treat usually known only to quail and mockingbirds.

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