Most people prefer their grapes without seeds, and consequently they are missing out on some delicious varieties, according to grape grower Lon Rombough. He's been growing and breeding grapevines, as well as many other fruits and nuts, for 40 years. "The breeding of seedless grapes signaled the end of a lot of varieties," says Rombough. "I have varieties with seeds that taste better than popular seedless varieties, but people won't try them." Evidently, we've become too lazy to spit out the seeds, although it isn't necessary to make even that small effort. Rombough says that grape seeds evolved to be easily swallowed, pass through man or beast, and get deposited elsewhere to grow and perpetuate the species.
Rombough is a member of the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX), a group dedicated to every aspect of fruit growing, from finding and identifying unusual varieties to keeping them available for future generations. Some NAFEX members grow every possible variety of a fruit that they can ? one member grows 1000 different apples. "It's like collecting string," Rombough quips. For others, flavor is paramount. Some breed for characteristics that will thrive in their challenging microclimate, such as Wisconsin's cold winters and short growing season.
At one time, there were many local varieties, each adapted to a particular area, but that changed as fewer people grew their own food and small farms gave way to large-scale agriculture. Still, the unique climate and growing conditions of a region do have an effect on the characteristics of a crop. "I've eaten the same grape variety in Arkansas, New York, and Oregon, and it tastes different in each place," says Rombough. This uniqueness gives a sense of purpose to the work ? or rather, the passion ? of the fruit explorers.
Rombough keeps his ear, as well as his eye, to the ground in searching for old varieties. He may hear from someone about a vine that's been growing on the family farm for years. Or he may receive material from other breeders or tissue samples from the USDA's National Plant Germplasm System. NAFEX members eagerly exchange information and plants. "One thing leads to another, like the old round-robin," he says. If the variety is unidentified, he combs through references to match plant descriptions.
NAFEX has a lending library for members, with materials available for the cost of postage. Although the Internet has become a major research tool in recent years, many references are so obscure that they aren't yet available online. Fortunately, libraries at land-grant universities are a fertile source of early agricultural bulletins. One time Rombough received a plum variety from an elderly man who had bought it from Luther Burbank, a well-known California horticulturist of the early 1900s. Rombough searched old bulletins written in the 1940s at UC Berkeley and elsewhere to eventually find a description of that plum. It turned out to be a variety that was thought to be extinct.
Rombough's fascination with grapes has introduced him to quite a few grapevine enthusiasts over the years who lived well into their 90s, lending credence to the various studies reporting a glass of wine is good for one's health. One vigorous fellow even made it to 101. This elderly gentleman loved his vineyard so much that he used to lie down in it to rest rather than go indoors. This created problems for his family. Strangers would knock on the door to tell them that "someone was dead in their vineyard."
Rombough has compiled his experiences into The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture, (Chelsea Green, 2002). If you're interested in uncommon grapes and other fruits, contact Lon Rombough at http://www.bunchgrapes.com/. For more on NAFEX, go to http://www.nafex.org/.