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The Grapes of Brooklyn

Jan 30, 2010 2:45 PM | 1 comment

The Grape Culturist cover

In this biting cold I think longingly of summer, of heat, of gardens bursting with blossoms, fruits and whatever else they may produce. And produce they do, in an abundance that reminds one of the fact that not so long ago, much of Brooklyn's land was given over to the intensive cultivation of market garden crops.

I am reminded of this every time I visit a house I used to live in, the back of which is covered by a large grapevine. This vine left unchecked  would cover the entire back yard in a season. It was so vital that if you left a window open in the morning, by the afternoon shoots would be creeping into your bedroom--you could almost see the tendrils grow. It was said to have been planted by an Italian family that formerly lived next door; but grapevines have been growing in Brooklyn since long before the wave of immigration from Italy that began in the 1880s.

Spooner on Grapes

The printer and publisher Alden Spooner published a book in 1846 entitled The Cultivation of American Grape Vines and Making of  Wine that drew on his long experience of viticulture in Brooklyn. Spooner's enthusiasm for the Isabella grape led him to give cuttings to anyone who would accept them. He felt that "every man owning a lot of ground of any dimensions, may raise his own grapes and make his own wine."  It is very possible that offshoots of Spooner's vines are still growing in Brooklyn back yards today.

Another Brooklyn-based scholar of viticulture was Andrew S. Fuller, who wrote "The Grape Culturist: A Treatise on the Cultivation of the Native Grape" published in 1864. He signs himself Andrew S. Fuller, Practical Horticulturist, Brooklyn, N.Y., and his book shows an encyclopedic knowledge of the craft, from propogation through hybridizing, transplanting, pruning and training, diseases and pests and so on.  Whereas Spooner mentions only two or three varieties of grapes in 1846, by the 1860s Fuller lists 63 varieties from the Adirondac to the York Madeira.

After many years during which beermaking held the ascendency in Brooklyn, winemaking is finally making a comeback, with commercial winemakers in Williamsburg and Red Hook already in production.  Their grapes are not grown in Brooklyn yet, but backyard viticulture could have a bright future here.  It is a comfort to know that while we wait for the burgeoning of sun-ripened grapes on south-facing walls we can still enjoy the fermented fruit of years past--as people have done in Brooklyn for a very long time.

 Training vines by Spooner

P.S. Notwithstanding the angle of the above illustration, no wine was drunk during the writing of this post.


2/11/2010 7:56:44 PM #

I bought a very old house with an old Concord grapevine in the back a few years ago.  I've been struggling since to learn what to do with it. With that aim I took a class in grape pruning at a local college last year and I have to say our pruning in the fields looked just like the illustration above.

On another grape-related note - the Grapevine Cottage in Concord Mass where the Concord Grape was developed was for sale last year - in fact may be still. I got to visit it 2 or 3 times and can only hope that a preservation-minded buyer ends up with it.

Your illustrations for your posts are simply wonderful - makes me long to be back in the archives!


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