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My Life As a Small Time Wine Criminal

I'd like to confess to a truly wine geek fantasy: I want to know what all the great varietals taste like. As grapes. Yep. I want to eat the major varieties raw. There's something about tasting the grape before the wine that fascinates me. I don't know why, but it's there. So over the years I've encountered the jovian Muscat grapes in my supermarket, as well as the trendy Champagne grapes. But other than that, I'm embarrassed to say, I haven't made much progress on my fantasy. Which is silly, really, because I certainly know enough winemakers to have done this a while ago. Heck, I live 40 minutes from the nearest major appellation. But I've been lazy or embarrassed or just too busy.

grapethief.jpgBut today I was driving home from a tasting event in Napa, and something in me snapped. Maybe it was the atmosphere. The sun was slanting low and golden on the vineyards, which themselves had started to turn gold and amber and flame as the days shorten. Many had been picked already, but there were still many that had lush full bunches of fruit dangling below the colorful leaves. I watched them go by in my peripheral vision for a while as I cruised down Oakville Crossing, and then, suddenly in a fit of impetuousness, I swerved my car off the road, hopped out, and strode out into the nearest row, whereupon I reached down, plucked off a few (4 to be exact) plump ripe Cabernet grapes and popped them into my mouth.

Yep. Trespassing AND Theft. There's got to be a circle of hell for wine drinkers who steal fruit. Even if they can make a lame excuse later that it was all for journalistic purposes. Ahem.

I've learned enough about winemaking and wines to have an intellectual understanding of what wine grapes are like, but I have to say I wasn't really prepared for the experience of eating some ripe Cabernet. Which is to say -- it didn't taste the way I expected. I knew that in general wine grapes don't taste like the wine, but damned if I didn't sort of expect it to. I also know that almost all red grapes are white on the inside, but I was still taken aback. I mean, I was standing there, looking at ripe cabernet and no matter how much intellectually I understood that it wouldn't, I sort of imagined these plump little berries would burst with deep red, vaguely cabernet-like goodness in my mouth.

Needless to say, that wasn't the case.

There's not much to a ripe Cabernet grape when you get right down to it. They're small (about half an inch in diameter) and even though they're firm and plump, they don't have much inside them. A couple of seeds, which must take up 20 to 25% of the internal space in the berry, some firm, juicy, clear insides, and a very thick velvety skin. When I put one in my mouth and chewed, my teeth first met the resistance of this skin, and then the berry popped in my mouth, although rather than exploding with juice, it sort of deflated, with the skin mostly intact. As I chewed, the flavors were a nice mix of the watery, grapey sweetness that you get from any good grapes (though not nearly as sweet as your normal table grape), mixed with a tangy, yes, even aromatic, flavor of the skin, which was definitely not like any grape I've had before.

I chewed right through the seeds as well, which imparted a slightly woody quality to the whole mouthful, but not in an unpleasant way. I could definitely eat a whole bunch of these sitting in the afternoon sun, I thought to myself. But then I remembered where I was. Opus One might forgive me for a couple of grapes, but a whole cluster might be pushing it. So with sticky hands, a slightly guilty conscience, and a big-ass grin on my face, I jumped in the car and headed on down the road.

That takes care of Cabernet. Now on to the rest !

Comments (15)

Jackson West wrote:
10.21.05 at 12:35 AM

My mom had what I assume was a vine of Concord grapes in our back yard when I was growing up. While I know they're not wine grapes, I think they must have tasted a lot like those Cabernet -- at least, based on your description.

They definitely didn't taste like those huge Chilean table grapes that we weren't allowed to buy because of Pinochet. I'd steal some at the supermarket in my own little act of defiance (against my parents, at the time, but in retrospect, I'm sure it was virulent anti-fascist sentiment).

Mike Tommasi wrote:
10.21.05 at 1:17 AM


Of course the small so-called "Champagne" grapes bear no relation to the 3 grape varieties used in Champagne... you know that of course, but maybe some readers might think there is such a thing as a Champagne grape... this is actually the US commercial name for Black Corinth, aka Korinthiaki, Stafidambelos, Stafida, Lianorogi, Corinthe Noir, Raisin de Corinthe, Corinto Nero, Korinthiaki Stafis, Korinthiaki Stafida, Mavri Stafis, Lianorogi, Corinthe Noir, Raisin de Corinthe, Pesserille, Passerilla, Corinto nero, Passerina, Passolina, Passera, Passeretta nera, Passula di Corinto, Black corinth, Currant grape, Zante Currant, Korinthiaki stafida, Korinthiaki, Corinthe Noir, Staphidampelo, Corinthe noir, Stafidampelo, Raisin de Corinthe

Iris wrote:
10.21.05 at 1:37 AM

If ever you come to Lisson during september, you could add some more to your collection while climbing slowly uphill trough what we call "Les Echelles de Lisson", the "ladders": you start with Cot (whichis also called Malbec), then you change to Cabernet Franc - and we'll see whether you will find out by tasting, where grapes change into Cabernet Sauvignon, then you will have a break from French South West by tasting some Pinot Noir, over ripe often at this time, perhaps some Carmenere, which we grafted just to complete the collection, beside the Petite Arvine and some Viognier, which like the Roussanne et Marsanne are genuine white grapes.
Then you'll have time to admire the breath taking view over the valley back to Olargues, the medieval village nearby, before you can stroll back downhill in the "Cirque des Cedres", a beautiful south directed arena, where you can complete your experience with Petit Verdot, Merlot and Mourvedre. And perhaps I'll sacrifice some of my precious Chenin grapes, those with the real "grains nobles" to round up your experience :-)))

It's really a great pleasure, tasting all that, and you describded the feeling quite right. It's that way, by tasting especially the texture of skins and seeds, that we judge the ripeness of our grapes, which is not only sugar content, but also tanins and anthocyanes, which are mainly resident in skins and seeds and very important for a good balanced wine, able to last.

It's also fascinating to look at and taste the freshly pressed juice, which we need to "measure" sugar = potentiel alcohol degree. They are delightfull, all different - and even if only pressed manually (with the hand citrus press), take already all teints of rose to red.
So think about it, you're always welcome - but I also understand that it may be more exiting to do it your way - we all have proverbs about forbidden fruits so much better then granted ones - and I imagine, I could'nt resist, if one day I came along Romanee Conti before harvest time...

Natalia wrote:
10.21.05 at 4:58 AM

Have you ever tried ice wine grapes? I often pop my store-purchased red or green grapes into the freezer for dessert. I wonder if those frozen ice wine grapes taste similarly to the store-bought ones.

Scott wrote:
10.21.05 at 7:36 AM

To the first post, actually Concord grapes are used to make wine. Would I call it the best wine out there? No. But it is used! As an example: http://www.northwest-wine.com/honeywood-winery-concord-grape-wine.html

Fatemeh wrote:
10.21.05 at 10:58 AM

Natalia -
Don't forget that those Eiswein grapes are utterly overripe. They're already shriveling when that first frost hits.

Soooo... leave your grapes in the sun to start drying, THEN try freezing them.

The flavor will be ten times more intense, and of course, they will be much, much sweeter.

Terry Hughes wrote:
10.21.05 at 1:57 PM

There may not be a circle in Hell, but a fitting punishment might be to make you read the Confessions of St. Augustine--at least the part where he feels REMORSE for stealing a neighbor's fruit (pears, in that case)...Oh the shame!

Alder wrote:
10.21.05 at 2:03 PM


I think I still have my copy of Confessions lying around here somewhere. I remember slogging through it in college. Are you sure that doesn't qualify as cruel and unusual punishment ?

Bob wrote:
10.23.05 at 10:21 PM

I don't know where you buy your table grapes (enlighten me, please) as the ones I find in the store and at the farmers markets are never nearly as ripe as wine grapes are when harvest begins (a minimum of 23 brix).
The closest I've come are some roadside stands in Kern county in mid-summer.
You are spot on, though, about sticky fingers. Wine grapes always get me sticky when checking sugar levels - even just a few grapes will do it.
Iris, is the invite open to anyone visit Lisson?? Sounds fabulous.
Bon Soir

Alder wrote:
10.24.05 at 11:41 AM


As a rule, I generally don't buy table grapes, because most of them are awful, bland things. The best grapes I have had in memory have generally been bought by friends or restaurants, so I can’t give you guidance other than that there may be farmers markets in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa with some decent stuff, especially at this time of year.

10.24.05 at 12:04 PM

Ripe Concord grapes taste dramatically different from the ripe wine grapes I've tasted (I've had pinot, syrah, zin and viognier).

Both are super tasty, but Concord taste like Welsh's grapejuice, while wine grapes really don't.

Tyler West wrote:
10.24.05 at 12:46 PM

Best place to taste the basic grape varietals is at the wineries themselves. Yes, I to have ventured at not only tasting the grapes at several wineries but I also got permission to take grape clippings from some of my favorite wineries vines. I then planted them on my acreage. It’s true, just stick the cropping in the ground and Walla; in 5 year’s your vines will be producing beautiful clone grapes to the winery grapes. Try it. The winery owners are very generous folks and usually get a kick out unusual requests.

Iris wrote:
10.28.05 at 12:50 AM

Bonjour Bob - the invitation is open to everybody coming to the South of France - next period to risk sticky fingers : august to september 2006 :-)))

Valcs wrote:
11.13.05 at 8:11 AM

hithere. Hi just bought a vineyard in sout of slovakia (just felt like it) and I started to study plenty about grapes. The "Grape variety study" is here called Ampelography and it is very serious. You have three main categories of grapes wine grapes - making wine, table wines - eating and finally the grape plants which are used as a root (basis) for noble grapes (to protect the noble grape from bugs, frost etc..). when bought my vineyard i still had some cabernet and i agree.. seeds and a bit different taste. but you should ry riesling or other white grapes... not for eating...but i love the wine from them. I agree theso called "Champagne" grapes are not for grapes. Yes you can make wine from table grapes but it is the same like making wine from apple, berries or other fruit. On my tiny vineyard I found one interesting variety called Othello. It is not the european Vinis vinifera but american Vinis rupe...something... They are forbided in europe...upsss. The guy used it as base for noble grapes because it is very resistant. It produses grapes but they taste funny... sweet, but funny... Oh btw. I am first time here and this is a great blog... Congratulation.

Valcs wrote:
11.13.05 at 8:13 AM

sorry this sentence

I agree theso called "Champagne" grapes are not for grapes

ment to be like

I agree the so called "Champagne" grapes are not for wine.

sorry next time i will preview...

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