I should point out right up front that I haven’t tried unfermented grape juice in a long, long time. In fact, the last time I had it may have been as a teenager during communion at our teetotaling church, where grape juice was our “wine.”
So it’s intriguing now decades later how familiar the taste is as I sip a glass of Concord grape juice, most likely grown—in spite of the Massachusetts address on the bottle—in the Yakima Valley.
Familiar, and also quite delicious. Full-bodied, not too sweet, with a pleasing astringency and a distinctly Concord flavor that Craig Bardwell ’84 refers to as “foxy.” (That distinctive note is methyl anthranilate, a chemical also secreted by the musk glands of dogs and foxes.)
Bardwell is the chief viticulturist for the National Grape Cooperative operation in Grandview. National Grape, which owns Welch’s, produces about 60 percent of the country’s Concord crop. Bardwell says that 45–50 percent of that total is grown in Washington, almost entirely in the Yakima Valley.
National Grape processes about 10,000 acres of the valley’s nearly 22,000 acres of Concords. Grandview is also home to a Smucker’s processing plant and newcomer FruitSmart. Milne and TreeTop are in Prosser, and Valley Fruit is in Sunnyside. Most of the juice is concentrated and shipped elsewhere for bottling and further processing.
Michigan and New York also grow Concords for processing, says Joan Davenport, a soil scientist at the WSU Prosser research station. But Washington almost doubles their per-acre production, averaging about eight tons an acre.
The factors that are so beneficial to so many other crops give Washington that edge.
“Definitely some of it is weather,” says Davenport. Michigan and New York can suffer significant cold damage in both winter and spring. Also key to Washington’s advantage are low humidity, a long growing season, and lots of sunlight.
Besides overseeing production for National Grape, Bardwell has 14 acres of Concords in production and another ten being established. He says disease is almost nonexistent among Washington juice grapes.
“Any given year, I’d say less than five percent of the acreage gets sprayed with any kind of fungicide or insecticide.”
In contrast to eastern growers, Washington juice growers have no choice but to irrigate, says Davenport. Although Michigan and New York get much higher rainfall, getting that rain at the right time of year is not guaranteed.
In spite of how much Concords like the Yakima Valley, the grape actually originated in the east, near Concord, Massachusetts. In fact, the original Concord vine, planted in 1849, is still alive.
Ephraim Wales Bull planted seeds from the wild grapes around his home. He evaluated more than 22,000 seedlings before he was satisfied with having developed the perfect grape.
Although the Concord is primarily the native Vitus labrusca in origin, it is believed to have some European Vitus vinifera in its gene pool, likely hybridized during Bull’s search.
Bull’s grape won first place in the Boston Horticultural Exhibition in 1853 and was introduced to the market the next year. Thomas Bramwell Welch developed the first Concord grape juice in 1869.
Here in Washington, the Concord arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ron Irvine and Walt Clore’s The Wine Project reports that Concords were first planted in 1904 near Outlook. However, Bardwell says that during harvest last fall, a grower near Zillah told him that the two-acre block they were standing in was planted in 1902.
Clore, a horticulturist at the Prosser research station known to many as the “father of Washington wine,” launched his grape research with the planting of seven vinifera varieties and 20 labrusca hybrids.
In 1949, Ernest and Julio Gallo purchased 4,000 tons of Washington Concords to ship to California to make its famous Cold Duck.
As recently as the 1980s, says Bardwell, Milne Fruit in Prosser, where he worked at the time, made a product from Concords that went to Gallo.
Washington acreage is down from nearly 26,000 acres just a few years ago, a decline in spite of good prices and an actual juice shortage, says Bardwell.
Wine grape acreage has now surpassed juice grapes in Washington. Even though wine grape prices are on average about four times the price of juice grapes, because of the high expense of inputs and labor for wine grapes, a juice grape grower in a good year can earn nearly as much as he or she would for wine grapes.
Even so, recently resurging prices for juice grapes still are not at a level where it is a highly profitable crop, says Bardwell. Prices tend to be stable, so will generally not provide a big profit in a given year, as might more volatile crops such as wine grapes or hops.
Some of the declining acreage can be attributed to older or low-producing vineyards being taken out of production. They are not being replaced acre for acre with new plantings, as establishment costs are so high. Irrigation and trellis systems can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000 per acre.
“Then you wait three years before you get a decent crop,” says Bardwell, “so your return on investment extends out there a long ways.
“Even when long-established growers consider expanding, they put pencil to paper,” and apples and cherries might make more sense. “Wheat, hay, everything is high,” he says. “And you get a crop the first year, with not nearly as high an establishment cost.”
On the nutrition front, let’s leave it at the fact that juice made from grapes with nothing else added is very good for you. Besides other nutrients, grape juice is very high in potassium. Potassium, in the form of potassium tartrate, is both a pain and a byproduct in processing. The crystals build up in the bottom of tanks and can clog filters. But cleaned from the tanks, the potassium tartrate is refined and used in, among other things, cosmetics and cream of tartar.
Despite the high establishment costs, however, Concords provide a steady market and are relatively easy to grow. Once the grapes are established, irrigation, fertilizer, and labor are about the only inputs. Having graced the valley landscape for over a century, they will not soon disappear.
Meanwhile, perhaps now I’ll go back and revisit the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.