“The grape for the millions” – The Concord Grape

The Concord grape, Vitus labruscana, the grape of choice most associated with grape juice, jelly or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is named for Concord, MA, where it was born in 1854 under the careful cultivation of Ephraim Wales Bull.

Ephraim Wales Bull was a Boston goldbeater by trade. He learned how to make gold-leaf, which was most in demand during his time for gilding, especially in book publishing. Bull harbored a passion for gardening, especially growing wild native grapes and other native fruits, which he managed to do in his small backyard garden in Boston. When advised by his physician to move out of the city for health reasons he chose a 17 acre farm in the town of Concord, MA. During the mid-1800’s Concord enjoyed a reputation as a center for literature, philosophy, and free-thinking. It was home to literary giants Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and for a few years, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ephraim Wales Bull bought the property next to Hawthorne, now called the Wayside Tavern, which was next to Amos Bronson Alcott, a proponent of the Transcendentalist movement, and father of Louisa May who grew up to write Little Women in the famed garret. So Bull moved into an interesting neighborhood.

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Bull’s property had sandy soils and a southern facing slope, a condition generally considered as very favorable growing conditions for grapes. He cultivated and cross-pollinated over 22,000 native Vitus labrusca vines over 37 years, looking for a grape able to withstand the harsh New England winters and short growing season with a pleasant aroma and full flavored taste. Native varieties nearby included the Catawba, Isabella (very popular in Bull’s day), and Sweetwater. Bull, attempting to grow from seed, buried whole grapes in the ground two inches deep. By 1849 he had nursed them for six years before finding the fruit to be just what he was looking for, on what may have been an accidental seedling growing on his property. In 1854 he entered his seedlings in the Boston Horticultural Society’s Annual Exhibition and won first place.

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It is at this juncture in Bull’s life that he makes his fatal business error. In such a passion to get his perfect table grape out there he began selling cuttings for $1,000 per cutting, especially targeting nurserymen. He was so passionate about having his new grape proliferate that he didn’t see the consequences. Nurserymen only had to purchase from Bull that first time. Once they had Bull’s remarkable plant cuttings they could propagate them on their own and sell from their own stock. Ephraim Wales Bull invented a very successful product that just kept showing off new benefits as the years went by, but none that translated into financial reward for Bull. He went on to invent other fruits, but ultimately died in a home for aged men, slightly bitter about his life and lack of financial success. Mr. Bull did not prosper during his life. His tombstone reads, “He sowed–others reaped.” He did not achieve wealth but he was given full credit and admiration by his peers and is recognized by the industry he spawned. Horace Greeley called the Concord the “grapes for the millions.” His papers are kept by the Concord Free Public Library.

The Concord grape has long been considered to be the perfect grape for jams and jellies. Bull’s farmstead, known today as Grapevine Cottage, still stands and the parent vine of all Concord grapes still grows there. In 1869, not long after the Concord grape’s fame had spread, a New Jersey dentist named Thomas Welch first made a non-fermented grape juice by pasteurization for non-alcoholic sacramental wine using, Concord grapes. The grape juice industry was born. Jams and jellies came later and got a big boost when Welch’s entire inventory of “grapelade” was purchased for rations for World War II soldiers by the US government. Grapelade never quiet had the ring of marmalade and thus never caught on. Thomas Welch built a company that created an industry and relocated his headquarters to Concord, MA, not too far from the original source. Today over 450,000 tons of Concord grapes are harvested each year, grown from the Finger Lakes in New York, around the Great Lakes, to Mississippi, and some in Washington state.

My wine geek friends know that most fine wine is made from the Vitis vinifera grape, and was not native to North America. Almost 500 years before Columbus supposedly discovered the New World Leif Erickson was blown off course and spent a winter along the coast of North America (many believe he was somewhere near Cape Cod, though there are many theories). So abundant were the native grapes that he called the land Vinland and returned home the next spring with a cargo of grapes. By colonial times there were people trying to turn out quality wine with native grapes. Many of the native grapes in the northeast are of the labrusca species. Labrusca, also known as the northern fox grape (for its foxy, musky aromas), make excellent table and juice grapes, but generally not fine wine. The Concord grape is often called labrusca but is more correctly labruscana because the cultivar was likely a cross between a pure labrusca and some other native species, perhaps Catawba among Bull’s seedlings.  To learn more about native American grape varieties read Indigenous American Grape Varieties, A Primer by David Mark Brown

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About WiningWays

Wine writing, appreciation, and education, including tasting, evaluation, and food pairings a specialty. Member, Society of Wine Educators.
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