Gravitating Toward Grapes

A grape is a berry of the deciduous woody vines of the genus Vitis, which contains about 60 different species. Vitis is one of 11 genera of the Vitaceae family, and is the only genus that humans use for food. The Vitaceae  family includes other woody vines such as Boston ivy and Virginia creeper. The Vitis species are grouped into one of four different categories:

  1. European grapes. The European grape (V. vinifera) is the species most often associated with the word “grape.” It is native to the Mediterranean and Central Asia. The chemical composition of its fruits is superior to that of North American grapes for wine making, and it accounts for the majority of the world’s wine production. European grapes lack cold-hardiness and are susceptible to a number of diseases.
  2. North American grapes.  These 20 or so species are known for their cold hardiness and disease resistance. Their fruits have lower sugar content, and a higher acid content, which is a poor combination for making good wine. They are also “slip skin,” which refers to the tendency of the skin to separate from the flesh when eaten fresh. Grape species native to North America include: 
    • Vitis labrusca, the Fox grape, which is sometimes used for wine, is native to the eastern United States and Canada. Early settlers often described these grapes as having an “animal den” aroma; hence, the name “fox grapes.” V. labrusca and its cultivars contain methyl anthranilate, an earthy, musky-smelling compound that is also in the musk of foxes and dogs. Not surprisingly, it imparts a disagreeable after-taste for most people. Concord, a cultivar of V. labrusca, is probably the most popular American-derived grape.
    • Vitis riparia, the Riverbank grape, which is sometimes used for wine and for jam, is native to the entire eastern U.S. and north to Quebec.
    • Vitis aestivalis, the Summer grape, is native to the eastern United States, especially the southeastern United States.
    • Vitis rotundifolia, the Muscadine grape, which is used for jams and wine, is native to the southeastern United States from Delaware to the Gulf of Mexico. The oldest grapevine in America is a 400 year old Muscadine vine in North Carolina. Muscadines have a bold, musky flavor. They are nearly immune to insects and diseases but require a growing season of 200 days or more. Muscadine grape production is limited to states such as Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina, all of which have mild winters.
    • Vitis rupestris, the Rock grape, which is used for breeding of disease-resistant root stock, is native to the Southern United States.
  3. Hybrid grapes. The quest to produce grapes with superior wine-making qualities coupled with cold hardiness and disease resistance led to the development of European-American hybrids, including Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Chardonel, and Vignoles. Most were developed by crossing V. vinifera with various species of North American grape, including V. riparia and V. aestivalis. (V. labrusca was avoided because of its “foxy” flavor.) The resulting hybrids are very productive, cold-hardy, and disease-resistant. French-American cultivars such as led to wineries in colder areas.

Viticulture (growing grapes) is probably as old as civilization itself. Humans likely began growing grapes as early as 6500 BC during the Neolithic era around northern Iran between the Black and Caspian seas. Because yeast occurs naturally on grape skins, wine making developed along with cultivation. Some 8,000 years ago, wine was made in the Eurasian country of Georgia.

By 4000 BC, grape growing extended from Transcaucasia to Asia Minor and through the Nile Delta of Egypt. The Hittites spread grape culture westward as they migrated to Crete, Bosporus, and Thrace, as early as 3000 BC.

Grape seeds have been found in the New World in Native American sites going back to 1800 BC. North America has the widest variety of wild grapes in the world, with around 20 unique native species.

King Hammurabi of Babylon may have enacted the world’s first liquor law when he established rules for wine trade in 1700 BC. The Greeks and Phoenicians extended grape growing to Carthage, Sicily, southern Italy, Spain, and France. Greeks first planted grapes in southern France around their colony named Massalia (now Marseille) in approximately 600 BC. The Greeks made a fortune trading their wine with the Celts to the north.

Han dynasty representative Jang Qian brought grapes to China about 100 BC, along with pomegranates, coriander, walnuts, peas, cucumbers, alfalfa, and caraway seeds.

Ancient Romans grew wine grapes, table grapes for eating fresh and raisin grapes for drying. Grape sugar was a practical and easily obtainable sweetener for Romans. Grape cultivation in southern France changed dramatically after Romans overtook the region and started making wine from the conquered grapes. Under the influence of the Romans, grape production spread throughout Europe. Retired Roman soldiers settled down in southern France, or Gallia Narbonensis as they called it. The remnants of grapes grown in southern France under the Roman Empire provide evidence that domestication of the plant proceeded slowly in the region between 50 BC and 500 AD. At 17 sites in two wine-producing regions of ancient France, winery waste showed a mixture of wild-type and domesticated grapes. Over centuries, a greater proportion of the grape showed signs of being artificially selected for greater size and productivity. Those retired Roman soldiers developed a wine export industry that reached as far as India, where Roman wine containers have been found. From the first century AD until the collapse of the Roman Empire, grapes’ gradual movement towards domestic characteristics may have resulted from grape growers using different propagation techniques to replant and expand their vineyards. As opposed to starting anew from seed, farmers may have been making greater use of cuttings and grafting to preserve and reproduce a desired vine’s growth habits and productivity. Grapes grown from seed don’t always maintain their parents’ fruit quality, because sexual reproduction often produces offspring that differ greatly from the parents.

During their long centuries of cultivation, domesticated grapes were repeatedly fertilized by wild grapes, resulting in a diversified gene pool. This genetic diversity provided resistance to diseases and helped grapes adapt to changing climates.

At the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, grape culture and wine making primarily were associated with monasteries. The consumption of wine extended beyond religious rites and became entrenched in culture as a social custom. This increased demand for grapes, and grape culture grew steadily from the 16th to the 20th century.

In 1554, Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony in North Carolina documented they found wild muscadines, a tough-skinned, disease-resistant grape. It turns out that North America has the widest variety of wild grapes in the world, with around 20 native species that are found nowhere else.

Although American Indians had long enjoyed the North American grapes, they were not considered particularly enjoyable by early colonists. When Europeans began settling North America in the 17th century, they brought their European grapevines with them,  but the colonists’ first attempts to grow V. vinifera resulted in failure due to its sensitivity to cold temperatures.

After the year 1755, Henry Laurens, who lived in Charleston, South Carolina and served as a President of the Continental Congress, introduced olives, limes, ginger, everbearing strawberry, red raspberry, and blue grapes into the United States. From the south of France he introduced apples, pears, plums, and the white Chasselas grape.

In 1849, on his farm outside Concord, Massachusetts, down the road from the Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Alcott homesteads, Boston-born Ephraim Wales Bull planted some 22,000 Fox grape seedlings. This native variety, when compared with cold-sensitive European grapes, had a thick skin, woolly leaves and musky fruit. Eventually, Bull produced the ideal grape and called it the Concord. Early ripening, to escape the killing northern frosts, but with a rich, full-bodied flavor, the hardy Concord grape thrives where European cuttings had failed to survive. In 1853, Mr. Bull won a prize for his Concord grapes at the Boston Horticultural Society Exhibition. The Concord grape spread world-wide, bringing Mr. Bull up to $1,000 a cutting, but he died a relatively poor man.  The inscription on his tombstone states, “He sowed–others reaped.”

The first unfermented grape juice known to be processed in the United States was by a Vineland, New Jersey dentist, Dr. Thomas Welch in 1869. Dr. Welch, his wife and 17-year old son, Charles, gathered 40 pounds of Concord grapes from the trellis in front of their house. In their kitchen, they cooked the grapes for a few minutes, squeezed the juice out through cloth bags, and poured the world’s first processed fresh fruit juice into twelve quart bottles on the kitchen table. To preserve the juice, Dr. Welch stoppered the bottles with cork and wax and boiled them in water hoping to kill any yeast in the juice to prevent fermentation. Dr. Welch’s process was a success, and his application of Louis Pasteur’s theory of pasteurization to preserve fresh grape juice pioneered the industry of canned and bottled fruit juices in America. This first juice was used on the Communion table in the local Methodist church for sacramental purposes, and most of the first orders for grape juice came from churches for Communion. Charles Welch transferred the juice operations to Watkins Glen, New York in 1896, and the following year to Westfield, New York. He processed 300 tons of grapes in 1897.

While jam-like products have been around for centuries, Welch’s created modern jam in 1918 for World War I rations, calling it “Grapelade.” The Army bought Welch’s entire first production run and returning soldiers demanded it when they got back home. Welch’s launched retail grape jam in 1923. Jam is successful because it has the great Concord grape taste, but water has been removed so it will not spoil under normal circumstances. Grape continues to be a favorite flavor of jam and jelly.

During World War II, three products came together to create the lunch classic, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. After Welch’s invented Grapelade in 1918, the next major product improvement was bagged, pre-sliced bread, created in 1928. The last product came from the need to get U.S. soldiers more protein during World War II. Inexpensive but nutritious, peanuts were ground into a smooth, buttery consistency, canned, and put into soldier’s rations. Somewhere, someone mixed his rations in a very new way, and we have been eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ever since.

By 1964, the union United Farm Workers Association (UFWA) was formed with 1,000 members under the leadership of Cesar Chavez. The farm workers wanted better wages and better working and living conditions. In August 1965, an independent walkout of Mexican and Filipino grape workers in Delano, California caught Chavez’s attention. An even larger strike led by the Filipinos against all the grape companies in the Delano area was supported by UFWA. When the strike was not successful in completely halting field work, Chavez organized a march to California’s state capitol to inspire farm workers to join the union. The march was effective in getting national attention, however, Chavez knew that neither the march nor the strike would be effective in getting the grape producers to negotiate. UFWA then decided to call a boycott of the Schenley Liquor Company who owned the vast majority of the vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley. This was a success and soon other grape producers were forced to sign contracts. Chavez sent representatives throughout the country to coordinate boycott meetings and fundraising efforts. For the next four years the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee decided to boycott all table grapes; this received wide public support. This boycott was the most successful in American history. In 1970 the pressure of the ongoing boycott resulted in the signing of contracts that provided workers with significant benefits.

The three primary uses for grapes are for wine, dried fruit (raisins), and fresh table grapes. 

The world produces about 7.2 trillion gallons of wine each year, making it by far the most prevalent use of grapes. This value represents a 35% increase since the mid-20th century; Europe (Italy, France, Spain, and Russia) accounts for 80% of total world production. Only about 14% of the wine produced worldwide is exported from its country of origin. Production of V. vinifera in the United States is limited to regions with mild winters, long growing seasons and summers that are fairly dry with low relative humidity. California produces about 99 percent of commercially grown grapes in the U.S.

Raisins represent a formidable use of grapes as well. World-wide raisin production averages 800,000 tons per year. Since it takes about four pounds of grapes to produce one pound of raisins, the raisin industry uses about 3.2 million tons of grapes each year.

Fresh (table) grapes account for less than 12% of the world’s total grape production. Since fresh grapes are highly perishable and transportation costs high, fresh grapes are consumed primarily in the country of their production. Europe and North America lead in fresh grape consumption. The average American consumes about eight pounds of fresh grapes each year. The grape industry contributes about $125 billion annually to the U.S. economy. About 25 percent of the grapes eaten in the U.S. are imported from Chile. The best selling grape in the U.S. is “Thompson Seedless” which also is the source of golden raisins. While the first Concord vine is still alive and growing today, its descendants have produced the most commonly-used grape in American commercial production. Today, growers harvest more than 336,000 tons of Concord grapes in the U.S. Washington State grows the largest number, followed by New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri.

Grapes are a good source of vitamins C and K; they also contain protein, carbohydrates, dietary fiber and minerals. Resveratrol, a substance found in grapes, has been linked to reduced colon cancer.

Grapes can:

  1. Fight free radicalsIn addition to providing you with conventional antioxidant nutrient like vitamin C and manganese, grapes are filled with hundreds of antioxidant phytochemicals, especially in their seeds and skin. Gallic acid in grape seeds is an antioxidant, has antimicrobial properties, and helps regulate cellular communication. Ellagic acid in grapes acts as an antioxidant by reducing oxidative stress. Tannic acid in grapes is a powerful antioxidant. Peonidin in raw grapes is a powerful antioxidant that fights damaging free radicals, and may fight inflammation and cancer. Myricetin in grapes has antioxidant and free radical-scavenging activities. Proanthocyanidins in grapes reduce free radical formation. Epicatechin in grapes is a strong antioxidant, has insulin mimic action. Kaempferol in grapes is a strong antioxidant that helps to prevent oxidative damage of your cells, lipids, and DNA.
  2. Fight chronic inflammationGrapes reduce the activity level of many pro-inflammatory messaging molecules, including interleukin 6 (IL-6), interleukin 1-beta (IL-1B), and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). Grapes also reduce overproduction of the pro-inflammatory enzymes cyclo-oxygenase 1 and 2 (COX-1 and COX-2). Peonidin, myricetin, and kaempferol in grapes have anti-inflammatory properties.
  3. Promote cardiovascular healthAll cells in your blood need protection from potential oxygen damage (especially in your arteries where oxygen concentration in your blood is especially high). Your blood vessel linings also need strong antioxidant support. Chronic inflammation in your cardiovascular system may also promote many types of cardiovascular disease, and optimal regulation of inflammation is especially important in lowering your risk of atherosclerosis and other conditions. Pterostilbene in grapes inhibits LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Quercetin in grapes may be beneficial for the treatment of heart disease. Epicatechin in grapes improves heart health, reduces lipid peroxidation and inhibits platelet aggregation, and causes blood vessel dilation by regulating nitric oxide, a molecule secreted by the blood vessel endothelium to signal surrounding muscle to relax. Kaempferol in grapes has cardioprotective activities, helps to prevent oxidative damage of your cells, lipids, and DNA, seems to prevent arteriosclerosis by inhibiting the oxidation of low density lipoprotein and the formation of platelets in your blood.
  4. Stabilize blood sugarGrapes are a low-glycemic-index (GI) food, with GI values ranging between 43-53. Eating grapes leads to better blood sugar balance, better insulin regulation, and increased insulin sensitivity. Pterostilbene in grapes inhibits diabetes. Tannic acid in grapes may prevent diabetes. Proanthocyanidins in grapes improve insulin sensitivity. Epicatechin in grapes has insulin mimic action, and exerts a protective role on the osmotic fragility of cells, similar to that of insulin. Kaempferol in grapes also has antidiabetic activities.
  5. Promote youthfulness and longevitySeveral grape phytochemicals may play a role in longevity and may provide you with anti-aging benefits. Resveratrol is a stilbene phytochemical presently mostly in grape skins, but also in grape seeds and grape flesh. It increases the expression of three genes related to longevity: SirT1s, Fox0s, and PBEFs. Resveratrol may also help protect against heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes, and prevent age-related problems such as heart disease and insulin resistance. Proanthocyanidins in grapes reduce the signs and symptoms of chronic age-related disorders.
  6. Promote brain healthDaily consumption of 1-2 cups of Concord grape juice over a period of several months improved scores on the California Verbal Learning Test. Grapes may also prevent excessive accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in your brain, prevent the excessive accumulation of beta-amyloid protein in the hippocampus region of your brain, and reduce the synthesis of pro-inflammatory messaging molecules in your brain (including IL-6, IL-1B, and TNF-alpha). Tannic acid in grapes may prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Kaempferol in grapes also has neuroprotective activities. 
  7. Fight pathogensNumerous grape phytochemicals have anti-microbial properties. These phytochemicals range from common flavonoids like quercetin to less common stilbenes like piceatannol and resveratrol. Grapes may also contain unique sets of oligopeptides (short protein-like molecules) that have anti-microbial properties. Tannic acid in grapes is a powerful antibacterial that can prevent diarrhea. Kaempferol in grapes also has antimicrobial activities. 
  8. Fight cancer.

    By providing you with rich supplies of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients, grapes can help you avoid the dangerous combination of chronic oxidative stress and chronic inflammation.

    Fiber also protects you against colon cancer, and grapes provide you with approximately 1 gram of fiber in every 60 calories. Ellagic acid in grapes directly inhibits the DNA binding of certain carcinogens. Tannic acid in grapes is a powerful antimutagenic that may prevent cancer. Pterostilbene in grapes inhibits breast cancer. Malvidin in red grapes may kill cancer cells. Peonidin in raw grapes may also fight cancer. Quercetin in grapes may be beneficial for the treatment of cancer. Myricetin in grapes has anti-cancer properties. Kaempferol in grapes acts as a chemopreventive agent, which means that it inhibits the formation of cancer cells.

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Seedless Table Grapes

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

vitamin K

14.6 µg

18%

vitamin C

10.8 mg

18%

carbohydrates

18.1 g

6%

copper

0.1 µg

6%

potassium

191 mg

5%

thiamine

0.1 mg

5%

fiber

0.9 g

4%

vitamin B6

0.1 mg

4%

riboflavin

0.1 mg

4%

manganese

0.1 mg

4%

Calories

69

3%

magnesium

7 mg

2%

choline

5.6 mg

1.45%

vitamin A

66 IU

1%

calcium

10 mg

1%

protein

0.7 g

1%

niacin

0.2 mg

1%

vitamin E

0.2 mg

1%

pantothenic acid

0.1 mg

1%

zinc

0.1 mg

0.7%

folate

2 µg

0.5%

fat

0.2 g

0.3%

iron

0.4 mg

0.2%

sodium

2 mg

0.08%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

lutein-zeaxanthin

72 µg

carotene-ß

39 µg

carotene-α

1 µg

Fresh grapes are available year-round. Choose those that are plump, free from surface wrinkles, with intact skin, without any cuts or cracks or leaking juice, and firmly attached to a healthy-looking green stem. Lift up the whole bunch in the air and shake gently; loose berries, if any, fall off easily. Buy ripened grapes: green grapes should have a slight yellowish hue; red types should be mostly pinkish-red, while purple and blue-black types should be deep and rich in color. It’s smart to buy organic grapes, because conventionally grown grapes are among the produce that normally rank highest in contaminants. For a full list, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen.

Because grapes tend to spoil early and ferment at room temperature, always store them in the refrigerator. Loosely wrap washed grapes in a paper towel and place them in a zip pouch bag set at high relative humidity. This way, they will keep fresh in the refrigerator for several days.

Just before eating, wash the whole bunch to remove any pesticide residues and dust by rinsing in cold-water for several minutes. Place then in fresh cold water and gently swish them around few times. Pat dry using a soft cloth.

If you are not going to consume the whole bunch at one go, then separate it into small clusters using scissors. This way, you can keep the remaining fruit fresher by preventing the stem from drying out.

Although grape seeds are rich in nutrients, most people prefer seedless grapes, unless you’re using them in a smoothie.

Here are some serving tips:

  • Enjoy grapes as they are
  • Add seedless grapes to fruit or vegetable salads with peach, pear, tomato, lettuce, apricot, strawberries, pineapples, currants, apples, etc.
  • Add seeded grapes to smoothies to get the full benefit of the grape seeds
  • Use dry grapes (raisins, currants, and sultanas) in cookies, puddings, cakes, muffins, bread, etc.
  • Use grapes to make jams, jellies, juice, and wine

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