Carefully harvesting wine grapes from well-tended vines quite literally provides the fruits of a gardener’s labor – and a satisfying Zen experience.
- Story by John Dumoulin
If the winter thawed by the time the vines flowered and if the Japanese beetles left me anything to prune, by late September my two dozen stems could yield a hundred bottles of wine. I found that preparing the trellises in the spring was the hard work; harvesting the fruit in the fall was centering, the payoff. So, when we moved to the Bay, one of the first things I did was plant some grapes. I had my first berries in two years.
Zen emphasizes rigorous self-restraint. It’s a meditation into the nature of the mind, peaceful coexistence, some reflection on the nature of Karma, and a revolving debate about give and take, Yin verses Yang, inevitable change and how to calmly face it with grace and perspective. All that existential stuff surfaces when I pick grapes – but first I have to prepare myself for the adventure.
Picking muscadine is a hunt, a quest, a puzzle, sometimes a test of stamina between me, the humidity, and if the harvest comes in early like it did this year, the oven-hot summer heat. It takes a centered soul to do it right, but my goal each day is to gather as many ripe grapes as I can before Mother Nature beats me back into the house for a much-too-early cold beer!
Bug spray? Check. Hat? Yup. Basket? Got it. Gloves? Gloves? There are no “gloves” in grape picking!
Picking muscadine is a slow, hands-on kata, with graceful movements of the wrist and shoulders. It’s also an exercise in faith. I stick my hand into the dense growth of vines, past imagined green snakes and anoles, all the while twisting my wrist through thick, contorted vines, flicking palm-sized leaves out of the way as I go hunting for green-brown gold.
Muscadine grow in bunches like their cousins the Cab Savs and Niagras, but usually only one grape in the cluster is ready to pick when you’re ready to pick it. Your eyes are in your fingertips, feeling for just the right sphere. It’s like how I imagine you milk a cow: you reach in under a thick, incomprehensible mass; finger for something that feels to be about the right turgid pressure; and pull.
When your fingers do happen upon something round, your digits ask the orb a lot of existential questions. Are you a grape, or a giant spider? If you’re a spider, should I scream in an unmanly manner? If you’re a grape, are you too green, too young, too tight, or too sour to pick? Are you just now turning a golden rose color or will you grow bigger and transform into that more desirable darker red-brown if I leave you alone? Are you soft, plump, and right for picking or perhaps, are you a bit too wrinkled, deflated, and flaccid to harvest?
While one hand is exploring, my other one will hold the basket, or colander, or plastic grocery bag, or whatever. For that hand, picking muscadine is just a matter of patience and balance.
In the meantime, there’s nothing for my brain to do but go into neutral gear. It can’t help but free-spin figurative connections. Picking grapes is like life because… New vines robbing older leaves of sunlight is like… The old wood and new stems remind me of stages in my life because... Should I get those berries on the ground or are they something left by the rabbits?
This year, I found myself thinking about the youngest grapes in each bunch. I felt guilt whenever I’d accidentally dislodge a few of these rock-hard BBs from the cluster as I pinched around for their older siblings.
I concluded that it’s not right to judge a cluster as pick-able and then pull off all of the grapes. No, I realized I was the Supreme Being in this relationship, choosing only the right ones and then leaving the rest to ripen in their own time. From experience, I know that if gathered too soon, a not-fully-formed grape will be less sweet, sometimes bitter, and certainly of unexceptional flavor. Yes, I might risk losing an almost mature sphere to a random bug or a wandering raccoon, but given just a little more time, that one grape will thank me with the sweetest, most palatable reward.
Like children, it’s easy to judge a grape too early. Some look gold brown enough in the early morning sunlight or late afternoon shade, but they just aren’t ready. There’s no putting it back if you pick one by mistake but if you don’t get that grape before it ripens and falls to the ground, you’ve lost it.
So, with the flick of a finger, I have to make a judgment call: Is this orb worthy of my basket, my breakfast table, my bottle of homemade wine? Once it sets in the spring, the best fruit has to be allowed to mature to its full potential, in place, each on its own. Kind of like children.
Like I said, picking muscadine can be a Zen thing.