SEEDLESS GRAPES IN WISCONSIN? MAYBE.
I like dried fruit. It’s a great way to enjoy fruit all year long with minimal energy expenditure. Doug and I have been hoping that we will be able to grow seedless grapes on our south-facing slope, solar dry them and put some local raisins into our foodshed.
Last night I took the first step toward figuring out how to just that by attending an advanced master gardener class on growing grapes in Wisconsin.
My hands were sweating and my teeth were gritting as I drove to the class. Recently, when we called the county building inspector to learn what would be required to put a tiny cabin on our land as a prelude to building our little house, we were told in no uncertain terms that we could NOT build in the place we had been dreaming about. (Not fire truck accessible—too steep.) That was a momentarily crushing disappointment. We have come up with a new and better location.
But I did not want to hear the expert on growing grapes in Wisconsin tell me that seedless grapes can’t grow here. I know seeded grapes can grow here. There is a little vineyard just over the ridge, and the famous Wollersheim Winery where they have successfully grown grapes since the Civil War is only an hour’s drive. But seedless grapes seem to be more finicky. In California, where most seedless grapes are grown, some take as long as 240 days to ripen.
So I went hoping not to have my hopes dashed.
My hopes remain undashed, but they are perhaps a little daunted.
There are seedless grapes that grow here, alright. At the workshop tonight, I walked along a row of young test vines. That was encouraging. What was discouraging was the seeded vines growing nearby that seemed about twice as vigorous.
Bob Tomesh, senior lecturer for cooperative extension, has started growing test plots of seedless grapes at the UW Extension test gardens.
Tomesh said he didn’t even try growing seedless grapes here until recently because he didn’t think they were worth the trouble. Then he learned of a new technique from Minnesota where they cut the young plants back down to the ground the first year and let them build up their roots an extra year before they start supporting vines.
Now he is growing them in his test plots with some success. The strongest contender is a variety called by the encouraging name of Reliance.
So — it IS possible!
I now know that the most likely seedless variety for this area is a mid-season red.
Evidently, this grape was developed at the University of Arkansas in 1982, which describes Reliance as producing large clusters of round, red, medium-sized berries. The skins are tender and the flesh is melting in texture, with a sweet labrusca flavor, which is best imagined as the “foxy” musk of the Concord grape. Coloring may be poor in some years, and fruit often crack in wet seasons. But its cold hardiness is among the highest of the seedless varieties.
My own Wisconsin extension publication says that Reliance is moderately sweet when fully mature, good for table use and very susceptible to black rot and downy mildew. It ripens in this state in September.
So it looks like an arranged marriage to a temperamental mate. Of all the possible easy-going grapes that grow in Wisconsin, if we want seedless, then we want Reliance. Hello, Reliance. A pleasure to meet you. I hope we will learn to love each other.
We originally got the idea to grow grapes because we have a southern slope on our land that seemed to us to be crying out for a vineyard. Tomesh said that a sloping site is not necessary for grapes, that grapes are traditionally grown on steep ground because most other things won’t grow there. But it seems like, if we not quite in the preferred zone, then a south-facing slope has got to be good.
The challenges of growing grapes in Wisconsin involve too cold winters. The buds that grow into next summer’s grapes can be killed by temperatures between -10 and -25 F. But then there is that little matter of climate change. How many more -10 nights are we going to see?
So, we’ll set up a trial arbor next summer and see what happens.
ANYBODY OUT THERE GROWING SEEDLESS GRAPES — HELP!