On the Vine
by Sarah Waldman
As legend has it, in 1602 Bartholomew Gosnold named Martha’s Vineyard after his infant daughter Martha and the wild grapevines that covered the Island. Bartholomew must have been truly impressed by the abundance of wild grapes, or perhaps it was their strong aroma or intense flavor that inspired him to honor the purple fruit in the Island’s name.
Two hundred and fifty years after Bartholomew Gosnold named The Vineyard, the first Concord grape variety, related to the Island’s wild native grape species, made its debut. Appropriately named after the Massachusetts village of Concord, this robust, aromatic grape was developed by Ephraim Wales Bull at his farm near the Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Alcott homesteads in Concord.
In 1843, Bull began the deliberate process of breeding a grape that could thrive in the cold New England climate.
Five years and 22,000 seedlings later, he had created a large, sweet, full-bodied variety.
Competing growers purchased vines from Bull and soon began raising their own crops of Concord grapes. Bull saw little profit from his work, reflected in his headstone which reads, He Sowed Others Reaped.
In 1869, Dr. Thomas Welch, his wife, and their 17-year-old son Charles, gathered 40 pounds of Concord grapes from the trellis in front of their house.
In their kitchen, they cooked the grapes for a few minutes, squeezed the juice out through cloth bags, and poured the world’s first processed fresh fruit juice into bottles. This first juice was used on the Communion table in the local Methodist church.
Most of the first orders for grape juice came from churches. Thomas Welch processed 300 tons of grapes in 1897.
Welch continued to work with Concord grapes and created grape jam in 1918 for World War I rations, calling it Grapelade.
The Army bought Welch’s entire first production run. Enamoured by the distinctive flavor, soldiers requested grape jam in grocery stores after returning home from war.
In the century following the introduction of Concord grapes, more of these purple slip-skin grapes were sold than all other species combined. Although modern uses for Concord grapes include juice, jam, soft drinks, and candy, I hope more home cooks will experiment with this special New England fall fruit in their kitchens.
Today, Concord grapes and similar native varieties can be found growing wild all across Martha’s Vineyard, ripe for the picking.