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June 2021

Grapes

Funny how small things trigger memories. Sitting here at my desk I’m looking out the window past my hummingbird feeder to my grapevines. I love their lush green foliage. Truth be known, the quail and a variety of little critters strip most of the fruit before I ever get to it. I don’t mind.

I’m old and fat.  But it was not always so. Long, long ago, as a kid in a fiscally struggling family, I often went hungry. On rare occasions, when there was a little extra to spare, my mom would slip into my brown paper school lunch sack, a tiny red box of Sunkist raisins. Boy, that was special. I’d savor each raisin, drawing out the flavor and sweet aroma as long as possible. Small, wonder one of my favorite Old Testament stories back then was the one where Moses send scouts to check out the land of Cana. Hearing about the giants and walled cities was impressive, but the part that stuck with me was that the scouts came back with a cluster of grapes so huge and juicy that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them.

Grapes, happily, are still with us, more abundant than ever. Mornings, Welsh wins out as one of my favorite breakfast juices, while more “adult” versions of the grape mellow our dinner parties. When I raid the refrigerator late at night, a grape popsicle is still a favorite, and Concorde grape jelly is my “go to” in a peanut butter sandwich.  Our fruit bowl often is topped with eating grapes in a variety of colors (they come in white, which is actually a very light almost translucent green, green, pink, read, yellow, purple, and black, by the way). And a good Balsamic vinegar dressing remains a favorite on our salads.

Beyond food and beverages, grapes have even found their way into our books, movies, even language. Who of my generation has not read Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, or cannot instantly recall Henry Fonda in the powerful movie of the same name. And we’ve all heard or used the idioms, “sour grapes,” or “I heard it on the grapevine.” The latter, of course, hit main stream thanks to singer Marvin Gaye’s 1966 Motown recording hit, “I heard it on the grapevine.” Actually though, the term goes back to long before that. Booker T. Washington wrote that on southern plantations, slaves used to pass on news, gossip, important info, person-to-person. Calling it “over the grapevine” actually had Biblical connotations. Christ often spoke of being the vine, we the branches. Nourishment, connection, indeed life itself, flowed from the vine to the branches. And, in case you were wondering, “sour grapes” harkens back to an old Aesop’s fable called “The Fox and the Grapes,” and the idiom described being envious or jealous.

Grapes, I was surprised to learn, actually are berries. And in Old English, the word “berry” actually referred to a grape. Speaking of old, researchers believe grapes have been around on this planet for about 65 million years.  Humans have been cultivated them for at least 8,000 years, which is also the approximate number of present varieties worldwide. We’ve cultivated them into three main categories, table grapes (which are thin skinned, and with few seeds or even seedless), wine varietals (which are smaller, have seeds and thick skins), and juice grapes (which are variants with traits from the others).  Most of the grapes we now enjoy, come in clusters from 75 to 300 in a bunch, easier for one man our woman to carry that the aforementioned Canaanite version.

The world’s most widely grown grape is the Kyoho, a table grape grown in China, very similar to our Concord grape. In China, they are generally eaten peeled. A rising fad and industry there centers on “specialty” fruits, gifted on special occasions. They are bred for enormous size and perfection. Grapes, for example, the size of golf balls. One perfect grape or giant strawberry (tennis ball sized) might be gifted solo, beautifully wrapped and packaged, and commanding prices from $50 to $100 American per fruit.

Though they can be high in price, grapes are blissfully low in calories (about 3 per grape). Grapes are about 80% water. In terms of sweetness, I was surprised to learn that wine varietals are actually sweeter off the vine than table grapes (25 BRIX, a. Standard measure of sweetness, verses 18 BRIX for table grapes). Wine tastes less sweet because sugar distills into alcohol, and only a small amount of sugar survives into the bottle. And in case you were wondering, it takes about 3 pounds of grapes to make one bottle of wine. And the most popular wine grape in the world? Cabernet Sauvignon.

According to the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization, which keeps tabs on such things, presently over 30,000 sq. miles of earth’s land surface is devoted to grape production.

Grapes in the U.S. grown in USDA growing zones 5 to 9, which means they will grow in most of our states.  Southeast Arizona’s high plains produces a fine wine grape, and is birthing an industry that is increasing recognized and competitive. Besides wine, Americans as a whole are eating more grapes. In 1970, U.S. grape consumption was close to 3 lbs. a year. Now it is up to almost 8 lbs. a year. Grapes are the highest value fruit crop in the U.S., garnering around 36% of the value of non-citrus fruit grown here. Close to 7,500,000 tons of grapes produced in the U.S. bring in an average of 6.5 BILLION dollar annually. That would definitely take more than two men and a pole to carry.

Beyond the pluses for those in the industry, grapes bless the rest of us as well in their multiple health benefits. Grapes help with weight loss. Aside from their low caloric count, they limit the bodies ability to absorb and store fat, especially in the abdominal region. Grapes contain a high amount of flavonoids known as Resveratrol. Resveratrol relaxes blood vessels, increasing the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the heart. Resveratrol is especially abundant in red wine. My late Uncle Fernando, an MD who lived to nearly 90, swore by a glass of red every night. Of course, so did my Aunt Annie, who only lived to her mid-fifties. But both died happy.

My doctor tells me my bad cholesterol (LDL) numbers could slip towards the good cholesterol side (HDL) if I eased up on the bacon and favored the grape. Grapes, I’m told, also help neutralize free radicals, which play havoc on all our systems and set us up for Alzheimer’s and a variety of cancers. Grapes contain anthocyanin and proanthocyanidins that inhibit cancer cell growth. For diabetics, such as myself, the high level of Resveratrol found in grapes helps reduce glucose levels. And, if all of this isn’t enough, grapes, high in Vitamin K, C, manganese, potassium, and minerals, aid with vision (slow cataract growth), alleviate asthmatic conditions, fight inflammation, improve digestion & reduce constipation, help lower blood pressure, and have anti-bacterial and antiviral properties that protect from infections. And, if all that were not enough, they’re just plain tasty, and a hoot if you watch babies and little kids gleefully smash them, spin them, even shoot them like marbles. What more could one ask?  Makes me want to plant another vine.


Anthony de la Torre
Sun City Grand resident

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