Our theme for the month of November is “firsts.”
“Pick the grapes when fully ripe or just past ripeness (when there is a slight slackness to the skin) following the first autumn frost.” – Jack Keller*
- Discover the wild grapes the best way to uncover something unexpected—while looking for something else. The vines are laced between tree branches, their clusters hanging just above eye level. You taste—a burst of sharp, tart, sweet. Heartbeat. A special find. These were strung here just for you.
- Return quickly with a pair of kitchen scissors and plastic grocery bags stuffed into your coat pockets. Snip, pick, pluck the clusters until the bags are full—two or so will do. By now it’s dusk, your nose is dripping, and your fingers are numb, but you don’t mind—maybe you can make something of this find. Tromp-trot home. Come in through the laundry room and kick off your muddy boots.
- Vitis riparia, the internet says, and with a few quick clicks, you learn these vines crop up along roadsides and riverbeds as far west as Washington, and weave their way through chain link fences into Texas and Louisiana. They wind their way up trunks and around tree branches into quiet Michigan suburbs, and continue east through New York and north to Quebec. They’ve spent spring and summer ripening, but it’s November now and the month’s morning frost has softened their bite.
- Gather the large stock pot (it’s in the basement), a pillowcase from the linen closet, sugar from the pantry, the glass mixing bowl, and a yellow packet of yeast from the refrigerator door (don’t worry too much that it’s bread yeast, or that’s it’s a touch expired—things are feeling especially possible this evening).
- Next, rinse the grapes, and bunch by bunch, pluck the tiny deep purple fruit from their woody stems. Soon, purple-blue fingers, then hands and sink. A spider makes her way over clusters and colander and across the cream countertop. Put the fruit into the pillowcase, and tie it off once you’ve separated all the grapes from the stems. Mash and squeeze and mush the fruit until your hands ache and you’ve splashed-stained your sweater. Save both the juice and bag of mush and skins.
- Fill the pot with water, halfway or so. Nightly Business Report is playing on the TV the next room over. Your dad is asleep on the couch, but The Dow and the Nasdaq are up, and earnings are topping estimates today. Pour sugar—a lot—into the pot until it feels about right (like economics, this is as much an art as it is a science). Heat over the stove until just dissolved, then add the juice and pillowcase of mush and skins. Stir.
- Scrub the kitchen sink, countertops, and your hands as you wait for the pot to cool. Wake up your dad to ask him where those chemicals are—the important ones. He’ll return with plastic containers neatly labeled pectinase, potassium metabisulfite, and diammonium phosphate. He’ll also ask if you’ve measured the specific gravity—after all, this is a science.
- Measure the specific gravity and add sugar or water—usually a bit of both—until the hydrometer floats at the 1.08 mark. By now, the juice is cool enough for a teaspoon of potassium metabisulfite. This inhibits the growth of any wild yeasts that may have settled on the grapes through spring-summer-fall-today. Add a cinnamon stick or two, some whole cloves, and an orange peel. This ensures a degree of whimsy. Cover the stock pot and sleep. It is late.
- In the morning, stir in a teaspoon of the remaining chemicals. Pectinase will help break down fruit solids and diammonium phosphate will provide nitrogen nutrients for healthy fermentation. In the evening, add the yeast (activate as you would if you were making bread), and cross your fingers—you admit that this whole venture is an experiment, but it’d be lovely if all went well.
- Cover the pot and place next to the furnace in the basement—yeast needs a warm place to do its work. Gently stir two or three times over the next few days. The basement will smell like bread and grape juice, and you’ll know things are going well so far.
- After seven days, transfer the deep purple-red liquid into a large glass carboy container. This is a job for two people, and your dad is willing to help. Nightly Business Report is on in the other room and the S&P is up nearly fifteen percent so far this year. A tangle of rubber tubing and funnels and more sweater splashes and an accidental spill onto the linoleum.
- Now, it’s time to wait—things like this take time. Perhaps by next year’s first frost, you’ll enjoy this November’s unexpected find.
*Thanks to Jack Keller and his charming DIY website—highly recommended for all your winemaking adventures.
Paula Manni (‘13) works as Arts Programming Coordinator and is an arts advocate for the Calvin College community. She enjoys throwing parties on the side, and fills in the gaps with wine making, music listening, museum visiting, and Michigan exploring.