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Mountain Home Magazine

Getting Along with the Locals

May 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Terence Lane

When I moved to the Finger Lakes, it was fun familiarizing myself with the iconic flavors of native New York wine. The sweet table wines made from grapes like Niagara, Concord, and Catawba are just a few of the long-standing favorites tied into the identity of the region. For more than a century, our native grapes have helped to slake a national thirst for Welch’s grape juice and continue to make the playful wines that represent a cultural flavor.

In the late seventies, my grandparents planted four Concord vines around their pool cabana. Not so ironically, they have always preferred the sweet wines made from native grapes, and that somehow reminded me of an old wine pairing adage: What grows together, goes together. The saying typically refers to the compatibility of wines and foods produced in the same area, but it stands to reason that the wines of a given place and its people share an inextricable connection as well.

Four years ago in May, my father and I planted nine vines of Isabella grapes in my parents’ sunny front yard in Watkins Glen. I’d purchased the vines from Conor Gallagher, head winemaker at Song Hill Winery in Victor. He’d piqued my interest in Isabella and I asked if he’d be willing to sell me a vine or two. It so happened that he had an order of vines on the way and I was lucky enough to secure the nine vines of Isabella for what I imagined would comprise a “garden vineyard.” Each vine set me back roughly four dollars. I remember being amused by that in the grand scheme of what a grape vine can provide.

A relatively low-maintenance American hybrid variety, Isabella seemed like the perfect workhorse for a couple of amateur vignerons. The terroir of the front yard was pure clay, which ranks among the least favorable soil types for grapes. Clay is difficult for the plants to root down into, and it holds onto excessive moisture, which can cause rotting, an unfortunate characteristic in a characteristically wet place. But I remained optimistic. Isabella can grow almost anywhere. The fruit was said to taste like strawberries, another trait that attracted me to the variety. At one ;time, Isabella was used in Italy to produce a sweet, semi-sparkling wine called Fragolino, until the Italians observed elevated levels of methanol (in very large volumes) during the winemaking process and banned it from the country. With our few grapes, there wouldn’t be any danger, and I was intrigued by the grape’s notorious past. A banned grape. An antihero. That’s exactly the kind of fruit we needed to do our bidding with the elements and the clay.

On the third year—or “third leaf”—grape clusters appeared in what I had dubbed The Nine Vine Vineyard. The name had to be repealed when I realized that one of the vines had failed to take root, a casualty of the clay. My dad cared for the vineyard in my absences, plucking off the Japanese beetles and covering the two rows in netting in order to deter the birds and deer that had grown increasingly curious as the fruit began to sweeten and swell. The 2023 growing season had been a difficult one, replete with long bouts of driving rain and breaks of burning sunshine that created rot-inducing humidity. We would walk around the rows, drinking wine, feeling unusually proud of our eight vines. The clusters were few and far between. Actually, to call them clusters was a stretch, as some contained only three or four grapes. It was nonetheless awe-inspiring. We were happy and impressed to see the grapes had emerged after the requisite two years of waiting.

At the end of September, the loose clusters had ripened. Dusky reddish globes of sweet Isabella hung like ornaments on a scrawny Christmas tree. I sampled a berry and didn’t get the strawberry notes as much as the musky, tart flavors consistent with the native varieties. Maybe the strawberry flavors would appear in future harvests as the vines matured. Maybe they just needed more time to be what they were supposed to be.

My mother was planning to make jam with the grapes or possibly a pie. There wasn’t nearly enough fruit to consider making wine, but the two rows were in good shape and it was impressive to see how well they’d faired on the proving ground of pure clay. Only a native grape could have persevered on that soil, nestled away in a small yard set back in the woods. The netting had done its job. We were almost there. The world’s smallest harvest was upon us.

On the day my dad went out to start picking grapes, every single grape was gone. It looked like the berries had been meticulously plucked by a set of miniature hands, something small and nimble enough to have Army-crawled under the netting and into the fruit zone. It was a tragic and humorous experience, but also a time of reflection and learning. The vines weren’t going anywhere. There would be other harvests. And who were we to think the grapes belonged to us alone? Other resourceful beings had been waiting in the wings as patiently as we had, observing the veritable garlands of free food strung out across our two measly rows. The harvest that never happened was a testament to our coexistence with the hidden critters all around, and a firm reminder of something I already knew too well. The old trope had never been more applicable: What grows together, goes together.

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