TO VINO OR NOT TO VINO

My husband, Martin, tells the story of growing up in upstate New York and visiting his Italian grandfather’s wine cellar where the homemade red was housed in oak barrels after being pressed with love from an antique press brought from Italy. As Papa released the wine from barrel to glass for tasting the results of his labor, he would speak to his grandson, my husband, about the wine. Then after assuring himself the wine was fit for consumption, Papa would offer a sip to his grandson. Perhaps only 4 or 5 years old at the time these are among my husband’s fondest memories of his grandfather. So, in retirement, Martin wanted to revisit the romance and art of winemaking instilled in him so long ago by a loving Papa sharing a sip of ripening vino with his grandson. And, in the process, perhaps pass along similar memories to our six grandchildren.

Living in Upstate New York instead of Upstate South Carolina, Papa probably grew concord grapes to make his wine. Popular in New England where winters are colder and summers cooler the Vitis Labrusca cultivar is popular. But, the concord and other similar types don’t have much of a chance in Upstate South Carolina. Although we teeter on the edge of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, summertime temperatures can hit a 100+ leaving traditional European wine grape varieties open to mold and disease. So, the idea of our growing grapes for any purpose was discarded. Then on a trip through North Carolina’s wine country in the Yadkin Valley north of Charlotte, we encountered scuppernong wine among the offerings. Made from Vitis Roundifola or muscadine, the staple grape of the south, scuppernong can be white or red and dates back to the 1600’s when colonists produced the first American wines made from this native grape. The wine we encountered was a bronzy colored red not quite as dry as we like but still good, though not as good as our favored cabernet sauvignon or merlot. But, muscadine wine was a possibility. However, after chewing on this for a while, we decided to give up on the idea of growing wine grapes and making wine. Thinking European varieties would yield a better tasting wine, growing anything else seemed unappealing.

Enter the Master Gardener Program. Among the reasons for taking this comprehensive course was the class on growing fruit. Having put the cart before the horse, I had already planted apple, pear, plum, fig and peach trees with mixed results. In addition, I had blueberry bushes, which produced little and blackberry brambles given to me by a neighbor, which were prolific beyond anything I could have imagined. Ditto for the fig tree. I wanted all my fruits to mimic the success of the blackberries and fig. But the most valuable lesson I learned wasn’t that I needed a spraying regimen. Or that I needed to cull selectively for larger fruits. Or that the soil needed to be tested at Clemson University before I planted anything at all. The most valuable lesson was when in Rome, do as the Romans do. This was a lesson Martin and I carried with us wherever we lived. But for some reason we were resistant to the idea of growing anything but European grapes. Perhaps, we were concerned on some level that any deviation would change the memories and romance of Papa’s winemaking. Now, however, we warmed to the idea of winemaking in the tradition of our adopted southern culture, thus creating our own memories. So, by the time my MG instructor was talking about growing grapes, muscadine grapes to be specific, I had given myself over to the idea of growing natives. Why not muscadine wine?

So, last February, in anticipation of Martin’s retirement, the heavy posts were set on the slope in our front field and the 13 gauge wire strung and tightened. We then planted six muscadine vines of the ‘Black Noble’ variety, which will eventually produce enough grapes for close to 150 bottles of wine! Black Noble is a winemaking muscadine that should produce a respectably decent bottle of red. It’ll be some time before we reach the winemaking stage but the journey begins. A journey made easier, hopefully, by the giving in to growing what works in our region of the country. Salute to memories of Papa.

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