The birth of a grape: And you thought raising kids was hard

Torrential rain is falling outside my home. Not piddly little drops, but big, monster drops that drown you in seconds. Lightning and loads of wind complete the not-so-pastoral scene. It’s at these moments I realize why Florida can’t grow grapes.

It pretty much doesn’t rain in the summer out West, allowing the fruit to peacefully enjoy the sun after a wet, cold winter. If it rained like it does in our subtropical climate, the delicate fruit might rot or mildew, so dry is better after grapes appear on the vine. Some grape growers irrigate during the summer, depending on the heat index, but many don’t do anything at all once the vine has taken root. It is, after all, a vine — the plant type that will overtake your yard if given the opportunity. But for vines destined for the bottle, winemakers have to coddle the plants to ensure quality wine.

Once a vine is planted, it takes three to five years to bear fruit. Growers nurture them with fertilizers — organically based or not — water them and tend them as they would an infant. A vineyard investment reaches into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, so it behooves them not to fuck up their child’s psychology (if only most parents were so caring). After harvest, around October (November for "late harvest" production), vines go dormant. Vineyard workers prune the dead vine arms that once carried the heavy grape bunches, and around April, the warmer temperatures signal the vine’s new shoots to emerge — this is called "bud break." Mid-May, brown stalks surface and begin sporting little green leaves and tiny grape-bunch-looking growths. At this point, the new foliage becomes vulnerable to cold snaps. One night of below 28 degrees Fahrenheit weather can ruin an entire vineyard, which is why you sometimes see large heaters among the grapes.

In mid to late June, the buds transform into flowers, a process called "setting." These fragile flowers will eventually become grapes, so any sort of bad weather — like the intense rain I’m witnessing right now — might rip them off the vine. Hailstorms have been known to occur in France during this period and demolish loads of crops.

When flowers start resembling grapes, sometime in July to early August, flying and crawling pests arrive. Although the herbaceous and tough fruit has little or no sugar, bugs dig ’em. So grape growers spray insecticides or use alternative methods such as introducing ladybugs and birds, enemies of the invasive insects. But in Florida, we are the humid wet dream of vine-eating bugs, and they turn bionic, unable to be killed lest a researcher at University of Florida invents a death solution. Sure, some grapes grow in Florida, such as the indigenous muscadine and some "hybrids" that UF invented. However, the best wine grapes retire here.

Late August and early September bring ripening of the fruit, with sparkling wine producers harvesting first, when the sugars are still quite low. The tart acidity benefits their bubblies. But the ripening also invites birds and deer to the buffet, and grape growers must take measures to prevent theft of fruit. Many place netting over their investment to prevent total annihilation by Mother Nature. It looks like a scene out of M*A*S*H*, but it works.

Once the grapes are fermented, aged and bottled, a winemaker can relax. And although Florida isn’t great at wine grapes, at least we’re good at beach vacations.


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