Grapes on the Front Range

One spring day, my wife Eve and I were taking a walk along a stream when suddenly Eve picked up the sweet scent of something unusual. I sniffed the air and recognized a distinctly grapey aroma, and we realized that near us was a wild grape growing up a tree. It was the native Vitis riparia, the Riverbank Grape. In my 20s I had helped extract the seeds from the very small and abundant fruits to make a wild grape pie, that clings in my memory as one of the best pies I have ever eaten.

         This zone 2 wild grape grows here but can we grow table grapes here on the Front Range? Yes, we can. And can we grow wine grapes here? You bet. Inquiring into the experience of four local grape growers, I discovered some interesting and inspiring stories.

         Scott Skogerboe is head propagator for Ft. Collins Wholesale Nursery and has been a fruit explorer since the early 1980s. While he was still in the army he was writing letters to some well-known plant breeders including Elmer Swenson. Elmer was a farmer in northern Wisconsin who very systematically bred and tested 15 acres of grapes. After years of work and no notoriety, Elmer took a job at the nearby University of Minnesota, doing farm work. The university had a grape breeding program that had not been very successful; few cultivated grapes withstand Minnesota winters. One fall day Elmer knew there was going to be a staff meeting so he brought samples of some of his grapes for the staff to taste. He mentioned that he had bred them. The head of the department said something like “Oh, OK Elmer, thanks. We’re going to have a meeting now.” As Elmer walked toward the door, the department head popped a red grape into his mouth and exclaimed, “Wait Elmer! This is a non-slip skin grape!” (almost unheard of in a hardy grape) And Elmer said, “Yes, and it’s a good one too.” That was to be called Swenson’s Red, a delicious table grape with seeds that I have been growing for 10 years. That began the exposure of Elmer Swenson’s line of zone 4 grapes.

         Scott contacted Elmer with questions about grape breeding and in response, Elmer sent him a 27″ TV box with hundreds of grape cuttings from the best of his unnamed selections, along with a 10 page letter describing them. Scott rooted these cuttings and planted them on borrowed land as well as in a plot at CSU. He selected the best tasting and the most seedless. He wrote again to Elmer asking him to name his favorite. Elmer said, “You name it.” So Scott, knowing Elmer was a devout Catholic, named it St.Theresa. That seedless grape was named a Plant Select winner and is growing on the south wall of our store at Harlequin’s Gardens.

         Scott focused on testing 16 varieties, and those he considers the best tasting and most successful are: St.Theresa, Flambeau, Trollhaugen-all seedless with an occasional crunchy bit, and the seeded Swenson’s Red and Swenson’s White. Elmer had crossed a superior River Bank Grape with a European grape many times, and his far north location culled/killed the weak ones. Then he crossed the survivors. From Elmer’s crosses and direction, the University of Minnesota has bred a few good hardy grapes like Frontenac, La Crescent and Marquette. Until recently, most nursery catalogues only carried zone 5 Eastern grapes that, according to Scott, are not so good in our alkaline soil and are less successful in our cold and rapidly changing climate. So thanks to Elmer Swenson and Scott’s testing and selecting, we now have many zone 4 grapes that we can grow in Colorado.

         John Martin and his wife Kayann Short run a vegetable CSA outside of Lyons called Stonebridge Farm. John has been growing wine grapes for many years, even though it is common knowledge that if you want to make local wine, you have to get your grapes from the Western Slope-Colorado’s Wine Country. John is growing 60 vines of 17 varieties of wine grapes, teaches classes in Viticulture and wine making, and has helped start 15 local vineyards. He did admit, with a chuckle, that it took him 10 years to produce a bottle of good wine. Every year John and Kayann host a wine-tasting for local wine-makers.

         John says that the best white is La Crosse and the best red is Frontenac, but he believes that the best wines from the Front Range are blended from 2 or more grapes. His favorite blend uses Overland Noir, which is a black grape with a chocolaty, earthy flavor. He also grows and uses Cayuga, Marechal Foch, Leon Millot, Avondale, the Swenson’s St. Croix, Espirit, LaCrosse and Brianna, and the University of Minnesota’s Frontenac and Marquette. To learn more about growing wine grapes and wine making go to www.FrontRangeBackYardViticulture/2017 Classes.

         Sahand TabaTaba has been growing 20-25 grapes vines in Boulder for many years. His favorite is St.Theresa which he says is very resistant to powdery mildew. He says Swenson’s White is delicious and he loves Seedless Concord. He also grows the seedless varieties Himrod and Reliance even though they are only hardy to zone 5, and he grows the very hardy zone 3 Valiant. He even grows Flame which is supposed to be hardy only to zone 7.

         He likes eating grapes fresh, dried as raisins and he has made some wine. One bottle was forgotten in the basement until it was found during flood cleanup. It had been hiding for 8 years and he described it as “the best.” Sahand originally came from Iran and carries on the Persian culture’s love of home fruit, poetry and art.

         Jeff Edson majored in biology, but made his livelihood guiding the cleanup of Rocky Mt. Arsenal and other toxic waste dumps. These stressful jobs led him to the peace and grounding practice of grape growing. For 20 years Jeff has cultivated wine grapes on his one acre plot in North Boulder. He grows 60 vines of 4 varieties: Marechal Foch, Seyval Blanc, Sangiovese and Shiraz (Syrah).

         Jeff  hosts an annual  grape-stomping party where 50 to 60 friends dance in the vats to live music, drink wine and—well, you can imagine what else. The next day he and his wife spend hours sifting out the stems, adding the yeast etc.

         Many older yards in Boulder have a Concord Grape growing: the kind that has seeds and tastes like Welch’s Grape Juice. So why grow and eat grapes with seeds when, now, there are seedless varieties? Elmer Swenson’s favorite grape was Swenson’s Red, which has seeds. Grapes with seeds tend to be hardier. And grape seeds contain compounds that are powerful antioxidants, detoxify the liver, protect the skin from UV and contain resveratrol, said to reduce the growth of cancer cells.

         In terms of grape culture, all 4 of these Front Range grape pioneers say grapes need ample water, at least for the first several years, except during the 3 weeks prior to harvest when the sugars need to concentrate. And they all prune their vines ruthlessly so more energy goes into fruit and less into vines. Few of them do much fertilizing. And they all protect the fruit with nets, electric fencing or dogs: birds, racoons and even wasps will ravage an unprotected vineyard.

         Front Range grapes can be delicious, enjoyed fresh, as juice or raisins, and as wine. And sitting in the cool shade of a grape arbor, with the bunches of grapes hanging down, is downright romantic.