Eight years ago I bought three five-inch-tall end-of-the-season baby grapevines for $1.29 each and planted them in pots on the deck, hoping to train them onto the arbor. Nothing much happened for several years, although one grew tall enough to peek over Bea’s shoulder in the photo below.
So I transplanted them into the ground beneath the arbor surrounding our patio. They liked it there, and began to make themselves at home.
Time went by, and over the last few years we’ve had a few sour grapes, but didn’t mind because the leaves were so beautiful. They might’ve been more productive if I’d pruned, but we loved the shady greenery.
This summer Seattle was unseasonably hot, and we had bunches and bunches of grapes. All summer we anticipated the harvest. Thom brought in the first bunch to test for ripeness. Almost ready…
We harvested ripe juicy pears.
A few apples.
And wild blackberries…
…by the handful.
Then came the raccoons. It wouldn’t be the first time. We let them eat their fill of Italian plums, just to keep them occupied and away from the grapes. But in the wee hours one night, they got into the arbor. I chased them off with the jet hose and stood guard. They growled. They snarled. They organized. It was intense. They adapted to the water, so I rattled a deck chair to scare them off. Once they became immune to the rattle of the chair, I had to bang on the chimes with a stick, which I’m sure the neighbors didn’t appreciate. While I was occupied by one, another approached from the other side. Finally, at first light, before disappearing into the trees, the biggest one curled its lip and said, “I’ll be back.”
We had to draw a line, and it was right in front of our first decent crop of grapes ever. Thom designed a “raccoon baffle” from metal sheeting to keep them from accessing the grapes from the south side arbor. He installed a little electric fence below to prevent their climbing up the base of the arbor. It worked for a couple nights. But the night before harvest day, we heard loud rustling just outside our bedroom window.
The dam! dam! dam! broke. Thom and I hurried out with bowls, flashlights, and scissors to power harvest everything within reach. I don’t know how, but they found their way past all the barriers to those grapes. Raccoons are the Borg of the natural world; so smart, expert at teamwork, and they adapt. While we snipped grapes, they kept creeping up from all directions. They look cute, but are wild and can be dangerous. It was illogical to take a stand there, when I could buy Safeway grapes for two bucks a pound, but I can’t deny it: I’m very territorial when it comes to my garden. Ask any slug.
We processed the grapes like we grew them–haphazardly, making it up as we went along. My sister Constance helped boil them into a thick syrup.
The crock-pot works well for this too, and you don’t have to stir constantly.
When the mixture turns purple and thickens, throw in a bunch of sugar. Please don’t ask for proportions. A bunch of grapes and a bunch of sugar. Strain it a couple times with cheesecloth, coffee filters, or a clean dishtowel (we used them all), and pour it into a container.
Heat the syrup in the microwave, mix it with a little brandy.
Or Vernor’s ginger ale. Here too I must draw the line. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: only Vernor’s will do.
And don’t forget the cocktail umbrella.
What you end up with is grape-flavored liquid Sweet Tart, best savored one sip at a time.
After we harvested enough grapes to call it a day (or a desperate last stand of a night), we surrendered the remainders to the raccoons, squirrels, and one particularly noisy possum. They are smarter than we are, and we figure they earned it. Now sometimes at night we hear them munching, run for flashlights, and watch them feast at eye level from our cozy raccoon blind. That’s not sour grapes talking. In fact, I’d call it a win-win situation.
All words and images copyright 2015 Naomi Baltuck.
If you want to learn more about raccoons, watch this PBS program on urban raccoons titled Raccoon Nation. It will shock and amaze you!