Humans have been eating and making wine out of grapes for a very long time. The Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and of course, Romans were all notable grape-growing cultures. But grapes also have a history in the New World. According to the medieval Saga of Erik the Red, the Norseman Lief Erikson was so enamored by the profusion of wild grapes growing in the southernmost of his North American encampments that he called the site “Vinland,” or Wine-Land, an area thought to be between Newfoundland and New England. It is known that American Indians had been eating indigenous varietals there long before the next batch of Europeans (the British) finally arrived in the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, these colonists’ European grape varietals all failed because of mildew and New England’s too-short growing season.
Enter Ephraim Wales Bull, born 1806, and living for his early years near Boston Common via a cow path called Milk Street. An avid gardener in his youth, then gold beater by profession (producing gold leaf for the book trade), Bull eventually forsook city life and moved to a seventeen-acre farm in Concord, Massachusetts in August of 1836. It is on this farm that a new grape varietal would be born and quickly take over the country.
At the time, Concord was the center of Transcendentalism, pioneered by Bull’s new neighbors, Nathanial Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcotts. Bull does not explicitly figure in the work of the Transcendentalists (although he and Hawthorne were friends), but it’s not hard to imagine him agreeing with their views of the awesome powers of nature.
A prudent man, Bull brought a few grape vines with him from Boston to plant in his Concord garden, but it was two crucial pieces of thinking that led him to the creation of a new kind of grape. First he noted that native “gypsy” vines on the periphery of his property were ripening earlier than his own domesticated varietials. Secondly, he abandoned the practice of grafting or transplanting vines and instead adapted the work of Belgian botanist Jean-Baptiste Van Mons who promoted selective and recurring seed selection. Bull took the seeds of the“gypsy” vine (what is now believed to have been a northern variety of Vitis labrusca or Fox grape) and, according to testimony he gave later, “put these seeds whole into the ground…. nursed [them] six years and…. obtained one worth keeping. The seeds of this were in turn planted and from these I obtained the Concord.” America’s most famous grape was born.
The original Concord vine trellis is still there, just to the east of Bull’s cottage. It is almost as if the man still lives there. Almost beyond the grave, Bull’s prudent voice is echoed on a nearby placard:
I looked about to see what I could find amongst our wildings. The next thing to do was to find the best and earliest grape for seed, and this I found in an accidental seedling at the foot of the hill. The crop was abundant, ripe in August and of very good quality for a wild grape. I sowed the seed in autumn of 1843. Among them the Concord was the only one worth saving. -Ephraim Wales Bull.
After five more seasons of pruning, Bull was ready to unveil his creation to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at their annual convention on September 3, 1853. But by a quirk of fate, his long-gestated discovery was almost lost. On the day of the show, he fell ill and asked a neighbor to deliver samples of the grapes to the Society’s Boston headquarters. For reasons still unclear, the neighbor, and Bull’s grapes, never made it. Fortunately, several of the organizers had heard of and were dutifully expecting specimens of the famous grapes. Not finding any at the convention, they trotted out to Concord to see the man, and presumably, call his bluff. Bull was shocked upright, and explained how they were supposed to have been delivered earlier. Whereupon the organizers went back to Boston and found the grapes hidden among some squash and turnips in the vegetable judging area of the convention. Suffice to say, the Society found that the Concord grapes had indeed ripened weeks before others, and in larger quantities. They produced a rich aroma, made for good wine, and were especially hardy.
A year later, at a meeting in Concord of the Farmers’ Club, a group called the “Committee on the Concord grape” was created, and produced a report worthy of Monty Python:
Your committee have partaken of more than one bottle of wine made from this grape, and they assure the members of the club that they do not speak under the influence of wine, when they say that they know of no other grape in this country so well adapted to the production of wine as the Concord grape.
In the midst of such fanfare in 1854, Bull was able to sell a few thousand vines. Then nurserymen around the country realized these could be split, and quickly resold them at a profit. Within fifteen years, Concord grapes were being planted as far away as Oregon and amounted to 80 percent of US grape production. But this was of course long before Monsanto and seed copyrights, and Bull received not a penny for the proliferation of his invention.
Bull was somehow able to funnel such financial–and no doubt personal–misfortune into electoral success by running as a Know-Nothing candidate (sort of an 19th-Century precursor of today’s Tea Party) for the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He won in 1856, and was elected State Senator the following year. He was also a member of the State Board of Agriculture for twelve years, and an active participant of Concord’s local school committee.
But Bull never forgot about his grape, and his own inability to create any lasting legacy of it. He lived to the age of 95, but by that point, most of Bull’s family had died, he’d become bitter and poor, and the Bull estate (such as it was) had fallen into disrepair. His epitaph bears the laconic inscription; “He sowed. Others reaped.”
These days, Concords are not the dominant grape grown in the United States, having been beaten out in the juice market by less aromatic white grapes. (Juice became the primary fate of most domestic grapes after Dr. Thomas Welch devised a method to pasteurize Concord grape juice in 1869; his son then founded Welch’s Grape Juice Company in 1893.) Still, in 2011, over 400,000 tons of Concord grapes were grown in the US, and may yet enjoy a resurgence as Concord juice has recently been found to be useful in the prevention of heart disease and was ranked number one in antioxidant benefits by USDA researchers.
Drink a glass for Ephraim Wales Bull, without whom we’d have no grape juice at all.
Incorporate grapes into fun recipes with supplies from our Kitchen and Tabletop Collection.
Leading image by Andrew Morrell.