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Through the Grapevine

By Audrey Stallsmith


But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid. . .Micah 4:4

As illustrated by the scripture above, the Old Testament ideal of peace and prosperity always included the grape. It was considered so important in ancient times that many herbalists called it simply "The Vine," as if there were no other!

The ancients could only preserve its fruits through drying or fermentation. The thick vintages they produced would not agree with modern tastes, however. Back then, good hosts watered wines down, and added honey and/or herbs to make them palatable.

The Romans improved filtering and storage, but grape-growing declined after the fall of their empire. Some assiduous monks preserved Roman secrets into the Middle Ages and made wine popular again.

Gerard reports that grapes will keep fairly well if packed in a clay pot with mustard meal, covered with must (fresh grape juice), and set in a cool cellar. He recommends them for anemia and "for such as are in a consumption of some disease, and that have need to have their bodies nourished and refreshed (alwaies provided they have no fever). . .It restoreth strength most of all other things and that speedily. . ." In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul agrees, advising Timothy to "use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities" (I Timothy 5:23).

Recent research indicates the moderate intake of wine reduces a person's heart attack risk by about a third. John Heinerman defines "moderate" use as only about ΒΌ cup per day. And James Duke cautions that any more than two alcoholic drinks a day will actually increase your chances of contracting heart disease. He points out the phenolic compounds that shield the body from LDL cholesterol can also be found in red grapes, bilberries , blackberries, blueberries, garlic, and onions.

Even Gerard, writing in the late 1500's, admonishes that the grape's benefits "proceed of the moderate use of wine: for immoderate drinking of wine doth altogether bring the contrarie. They that are drunke are distraughted in minde, become foolish, and oppressed with a drowsie sleepiness, and be afterward taken with Apoplexy, the gout, or altogether with other most grevious diseases. And seeing that every excesse is to be shunned, it is expedient most of all to shun this, by which not only the body, but also the minde receiveth hurt."

So it's probably not a good idea to begin imbibing wine simply for the sake of your health. On the other hand, the aversion of some religious groups to alcohol can reach a highly "immoderate" hysteria. Like most plants, this one is neither angel nor devil, its "goodness" or "badness" depending on how it is used.

I love grapes and am grateful that, with modern methods of refrigeration and transportation, even teetotalers like me can delight in them at almost any time of year. If I want a snack while I'm watching TV, I try to reach for fruit rather than junk food. And seedless grapes are among the most convenient and delectable fruits available!

Since they contain the same alpha hydroxy acids found in expensive facial peels, you can apply the pureed fruits as a masque that will both peel off dead cells and moisturize the skin underneath. Astringent grape leaves once stanched wounds and treated dysentery. Country women still cover crocks of pickles with those leaves too.

The Old World grape, vitis vinifera, prefers long, dry summers, and is susceptible to fungus diseases in the U.S. So most of the varieties grown here were developed from native species like the North American fox grape, vitis vulpina (AKA labrusca--"wild vine" or riparia "river-bank grape"). That wild ancestor of the Concord reportedly saved the members of Lewis and Clark's expedition from starvation.

As A. W. Smith adds in A Gardener's Handbook of Plant Names, "It remained for Georg Engelmann, the German-born St. Louis physician, to discover that American grape stocks were virtually proof against the minute plant louse, the phylloxera." So the brash New World types ended up saving some old European vineyards too.

Perhaps vitis vulpina was named for Aesop's fable about a fox which, not being able to reach some grapes, sulkily concludes they were probably bitter anyway. No doubt, that is also where we get the modern expression, "sour grapes." Other wild types include vitis cordifolia with its "heart-shaped foliage", AKA frost or chicken grape, and the western vitis californica.

In The Fragrant Path, Louise Beebe Wilder describes the elusive scent of wild grapes. "The flowers of the Vine are tiny, wholly unnoticeable, yet as you walk or ride along the early summer roads, especially at night, you are suddenly enveloped, caught up so to speak, among tendrils of exquisite fragrance, indescribably gentle yet searching. It searches out old memories, old scenes, old loves, and brings them before you without warning, between two breaths, sometimes with cruel clarity. Someone has called Box the most memory stirring of all fragrances, but to us, in this country, I think it is the scent of the Wild Grape that has power to disarm us and leave us unprotected before memory's shrewd attack."

The domestic Concords are the ones most likely to make me wax nostalgic. We kids used to pop the pulp out of the skins, then swallow that pulp whole-seeds and all--before chewing on the purple skins. I suspect this habit would be a bit hard on my digestive system nowadays!

Gerard speaks of a clear grape brandy called aqua vitae ("water of life"), which, in his day, was supposed to restore strength to the elderly and ill. Now, grapeseed extract, with an antioxidant power twenty times that of Vitamin C, promises also to restore youthful strength to what are usually known as the "declining" years. The Vine, ancient as it is, still has some surprises in store for us!

Image is from Phytanthoza iconographia by L.M. Dieterichs and A.C. Bieler, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.