Whining about Grapes

Posted on May 18, 2010


The two surviving vines.

By early August, the vines and their huge leaves will completely cover this pergola. If history repeats, there will be no grapes in the picture. You'll see. I'll add new photos as the season progresses.

The Greeks introduced grapes to Sicily around 600 BC. That’s a lot of time to figure out how to do something, and ever since, Sicilians have been pretty successful at cultivating and processing those grapes for various uses. All four of my grandparents were from Sicily and my mother was born there, so it was with a great deal of confidence that my wife and I planted five grapevines in our backyard nine years ago. But with each passing grapeless year, our confidence has, let’s say, withered on the vine.

As a boy growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s, I watched my grandmother, and then my mother, pick the full bunches of grapes from the vines behind our house. They mashed the harvest in a colander, using a cone-shaped utensil with a round wooden handle. Then they’d cook the juice with sugar, filling the house with a sweet grapey aroma. Within a day or two there were dozens of jars all over the kitchen, filled with homemade jelly and sealed with wax. I had no idea which of my family’s rituals I would carry into adulthood, but I always knew that one of them would be growing grapes and making jelly. It was in my blood, after all.

Flash forward about thirty-five years. It was an extremely dry summer. There were dead trees and brown lawns everywhere. And in our backyard, five dead grape vines. We immediately replaced them with three new ones. I think they’re Concord, but I’m not sure. We’d told the guy at the nursery that we wanted to make grape jelly, and he seemed to know everything one person could possibly know about grapes, so I’m sure he steered us toward the correct variety.

When the plants were three years old, I saw bunches of tiny grapes appear in late summer. “Here they come,” I thought. And that was the last we saw of them. It was as though they opened their eyes, looked around, saw whose garden it was, and fled in terror. (I know grapes don’t have eyes, but it’s a cute image, isn’t it?) One of the vines died in 2008, but the two that remain appear to be healthy and thriving.

I’ve tried cutting the vines back in the fall. I’ve tried leaving them alone. I’ve read the relevant pages in our gardening books. I’ve done online research. I’ve gone back to the nursery and pumped Mr. Grapevine for every drop of knowledge he possessed. I know the vines need good soil and lots of water and sunshine. But the mystery continues. We get huge leaves and vines that climb and stretch and wind around anything they can get their tendrils on.

And still, we are without grape. All of our efforts have been, I seem destined to admit, fruitless.