What to know about growing wine grapes at home

Growing your own grapes can be a fun project, once you understand how to train and prune your vines. If you’ve grown your own table grapes, you will notice that they don’t look quite the same as the ones you buy from the grocery store. Commercially grown grapes are larger and the clusters remain intact. Home-grown grapes are smaller, and their clusters tend to shatter (drop fruit). Shattered clusters look “picked over” and are less marketable, so most grapes are harvested before fully ripe to avoid this issue.

One of the biggest differences we’ve seen is between home-grown and commercial Thompson seedless grapes. When we grew them ourselves, we allowed the fruit to remain on the vine until the grapes were a golden yellow. When fully ripened, Thompson seedless are sweeter and have a more complex flavor, but the clusters shatter easily. This means we had ugly clusters of delicious grapes.

Our little vineyard attracted a family of scrub jays, who would return to steal one grape at a time. We didn’t mind since the entertainment was worth the lost fruit. Bird netting can protect your harvest to some extent if you’re not in the mood to be entertained.

Unfortunately, the local raccoons have discovered our grapes. Once I saw eight little masked faces looking at me from under the vines, I knew we were done. We still have the vines, and occasionally get a few clusters, but our expectations have been lowered.

Wine grapes can be grown at home as well. Occasionally you can find them in the local garden centers or nurseries, but they can be propagated easily from cuttings. Most are good for fresh eating if you don’t mind the seeds.

If you have many grapevines (and no raccoons), you could try making your own wine. Small scale winemaking is relatively inexpensive and the equipment is easy to find. I haven’t (intentionally) made my own wine yet since the raccoons ate all our grapes.

Wine grapes can be used to make some outstanding jelly. Most jelly recipes are flexible regarding grape variety, so you can use Zinfandel, Syrah, or Merlot instead of Concord. I’ve tried white grapes as well, but they lacked character and produced a jelly that was just cloyingly sweet.

If you don’t have access to fresh wine grapes you can make jelly from wine. Use a recipe that calls for bottled grape juice or wine and proceed accordingly. (Remember that once wine is heated the alcohol evaporates.) Juice from fresh fruit is different from bottled juice because it contains pectin, so sometimes a recipe will specify one or the other. Recipes that use bottled juice require added pectin, whereas some recipes using fresh juice do not. Too much pectin can yield a stiff product, so if you don’t like to chew your jelly keep this in mind.

Have questions? Email gardening@scng.com.

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