Saturday, September 23, 2006
The start of autumn equinox and the start of the month of Vendemiaire (the harvest) in the French Republican Calendar rightfully features the grape.
I grew up under a grapevine. When my parents moved into their new ranch house in Van Nuys, California, they had only a square concrete patio outside the brand new picture window of the living room. I was born about nine months later and pretty soon after that my father built a trellis over the patio and planted a grape vine. When I was young, I remember sitting under that leafy green shade; I also remember the purple stains the grapes made when they dropped on the patio. My mother probably protested about this and eventually the grapevine disappeared to be replaced by that corrugated green plastic which was so popular then.
I don’t remember that we ever made anything out of the grapes we grew but my Uncle Bob, in his back yard in Temple City, grew many plants which he made into wine. Whether this was just natural thriftiness (no plant shall go unused) or a fondness for fermented beverages, I’m not sure, but I suspect the former as Uncle Bob was Swiss (almost as thrifty as the Scotch) and the wine was not so attractive that one could guzzle it (I remember finding it quite repulsive as a child when offered a sip at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner).
Still I believe I was at born at the tail end of these two trends: the growing of grapevines in home gardens (I’ve only seen two in the years since then—one is at my P-Patch garden but it’s purely decorative) and home wine-making. In the intervening years, the growing of grape vines and the making of wine have become big business.
In the past few years I got interested in wine and began studying it pretty seriously. It was my last passion before this new obsession with plants. I found many wine writers whose writing I admire, particularly Jay McInerney whose columns on wine for House and Garden are collected in a wonderful book of essays, Bacchus and Me, Jancis Robinson, one of the first female wine writers, and a true poet of wine, Terry Theise, who writes about German wines, mostly Reislings--his lyrical writing is available on the web at:
I’ve also attended many wine tastings and classes (I just love the vocabulary and ritual of wine) and read many books about the wine-making process. My favorites include A Cultivated Life by Joy Sterling about her family’s winery, and A Very Good Year by Mike Weiss, a journalist’s (somewhat cynical) view of the process by which a Las Vegas casino owner creates his own winery and a wine designed to win accolades.
But not until last year did it really sink in that wine is made from grapes. I was at my local Whole Foods and noticed a grape variety that I knew only as a wine varietal—I think it was probably Muscat of Alexandria. I took one bite and was amazed to recognize the flavor. The journey from grape to wine is such a complex and interesting one. I don’t believe there is any fruit that is so cosseted, processed, praised and transformed as the grape. And, of course, there is the magic of it all--the transformation mystery of harvest.
Here’s a web site that lists all the varieties of grapes used in making wine and shows pictures of most of them:
(citing the Food and Agriculture Organization) reports that 71% of all grapes grown in the world are used to make wine. 27% are eaten as fresh fruit and 2% as dried fruit—raisin is just the French word for grape. Some grapes are used to make grape juice and sweeteners. Also the area dedicated to vineyards is increasing by about 2% every year.
This seems to be true where I live. Over the last few years several wineries have opened in Seattle itself, although the grapes they use are grown in eastern Washington. And every time I go to my favorite wine-growing region of Washington, the Klickitat, there are a few more wineries and lots more vineyards. Cascade Cliffs is one of my favorites:
Bob Lorkowski, who I first met when he was delivering wine to a customer on my block, grows Italian varieties which I enjoy, like Nebbiolo and Barbera.
I am still trying to take after my Uncle Bob and make wine from fruit that is closer at hand. But I have not yet succeeded in making anything drinkable.
If you want some recipes for making wine from a variety of fruits (and even vegetables and herbs), check out Jack Keller’s comprehensive web site:
The Vine is one of the trees (plants) featured in the Celtic tree calendar which Robert Graves proposed. It rules the month of August and has the power of prophecy, perhaps referring to the power of wine to inspire truth-telling (in vino veritas). Dionysus is the Greek god of the vine. But he was originally god of vegetation, ruling fruit trees and grapes. He supposedly traveled throughout Asida Minor, Egypt and India, spreding the use of the vine. The Roman goddess Venus was also associated with the vineyard, in her role as keeper of gardens and tilled fields.
Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper and Row 1971
Murray, Liz and Colin, The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination, illustrated by Vanessa Card, St. Martins 1988
Crimson Seedless grapes taken by Bob Nichols. USDA Image Number K7721-3.