Great Grapes for Organic Gardens

Growing grapes without fuss or toxic treatments.

By Amy Stewart


Best Backyard Grapes
I heard through the grapevine (okay, actually from the experts) that the following varieties all taste great fresh and, with the exception of 'Interlaken', all have seeds.

'Bluebell'. A cold-hardy (down to -35°F!), disease-resistant blue grape, it ripens early and produces sweet fruit that tastes great fresh or juiced.

'Edelweiss'. Juice, jelly, or jam your mouth full of this cold-hardy white grape that can be used to make wine. Also ripens early and resists disease.

'Interlaken'. A green, seedless, disease-resistant grape that makes great raisins.

'Steuben'. Produces a blue grape that juices well, and its fall color adds a beautiful bonus to your arbor. Cold-hardy and vigorous vine.

'Swenson Red'. Big flavor and cold-hardiness (to -25°F) make it popular among northern gardeners. Susceptible to downy mildew.

Lessons from California's Wine Country
Ted Hall of Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena (where these photos were taken) and Mike Benziger of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen share their secrets for growing high-quality organic grapes for their fine wines.

Attract beneficial insects and birds. A row of yarrow, catmint, purple coneflower, and penstemon leads hummingbirds and beneficial insects such as lady beetles and lacewings right to the grapevines.

Try cover crops. "Think of the cover crop as a gas pedal," Benziger says. Grow these "green manure" plants around your grapevines, and they help the grapes in several ways. Vetches fix nitrogen and speed growth, while clovers add more modest amounts of nutrients, outcompete weeds, and attract pollinators. Grassy cover crops tend to slow the growth of the vines. Benziger plants his cover crops in late fall and incorporates the green manure plants into the soil in spring.

Feed the soil. Long Meadow Ranch's compost comes from a delicious mixture of vineyard waste, poultry and livestock manure, and vegetable scraps. A vineyard is not a monoculture—a field composed entirely of one plant—but part of an integrated farming system.

It's a Fact

  • Don't expect a Cabernet grape to taste like your favorite wine. Wine grapes right off the vine are nowhere near as sweet as table grapes; the contrast can be quite a surprise.
  • A viticulturist is an expert in grape growing; an enologist is an expert in winemaking. "Friend" is the best way to address an expert wine collector.
  • Peeling grapes is easy with this trick: Freeze them first, then run warm water over each grape. The skin will split and come right off. (Devoted servants not included.)
  • Red grape juice contains potent antioxidants, which help protect us from heart disease. Evidence is growing that daily consumption may also lower blood pressure.