California’a Own

It’s a hot day in the wet section of Anderson Marsh Park in Lake County. After crossing the parched meadow, we’re taking a moment to cool off on the shady boardwalk and let the birds — jays, a black phoebe, rowdy robins, swallows above the trees — entertain us. The longer we stand, the more we hear and see.
A few turns farther in, the water underneath and leaves overhead have worked their cooling magic. But one temptation looks good enough to make me willing to depart the shade: Gorgeous, frosty, translucent bunches of wild grapes dangle a foot or two overhead… and several yards away, with a motley tangle of brush and thorny canes and a uniformly swampy floor of mud between.
I feel like Aesop’s fox, though I’m pretty sure these grapes aren’t sour. I’ve tasted their like, and these look bigger, juicier, and plumper than the ones on my backyard ‘Roger’s Red’. Right now, after a hot drive and a hot walk across dry meadows and not even a coffee break, they look heavenly. But they aren’t for me; quite aside from the nature-preserve reflex about not picking stuff, they are quite inaccessible to flightless bipeds.
Those jays seem to be snickering.
I’ve encountered square acres of native California grape in the wild, in many places, but I rarely see this much fruit on them. Possibly this is because I go to where they grow mostly early in the season — places like Mitchell Canyon on Mount Diablo in spring, when the butterflies and wildflowers are out and it’s still cool enough to enjoy. Grapevines clamber all over the place there, and I’ve stuck my nose into their flower clusters; the scent does have a hint of good old Welch’s. The flowers taste just faintly sweet and honeyed.
I bought a couple of Vitis californica vines for the yard a few years back: an unnamed member of the species, and the ‘Rogers Red’, a wild-caught variety named for Roger Raiche and known for its intense burgundy-red fall leaf color. I’m still enough of an East Coast transplant to appreciate that. It’s also more vigorous than the straight species, if the vines I have are typical. It’s outstripped its nameless sibling by several feet in all directions, and I have to discipline it severely this year because it’s smothering the dogwood. The grapes are small, tasty, tart, and seedy, and I leave it to more informed readers to decide if that has anything in common with the eponymous Mr. Raiche. I share them cheerfully with the few birds who like them, more grudgingly with those invader fox squirrels, and I eat some myself — outdoors, so I can spit the pips.
Mister Roger’s brethren turn out to be a confusing and boisterous lot. North America has a disputed number of native grape species, and those — especially ours — seem inclined to hybridize freely with Vitis vinifera, the most common Eurasian wine grape. Maybe those big ones I saw in the swamp were hybrids, but there’s plenty of variation within the species too.
I learned in school that V. californica was the savior of the European wine industry, because it was grafting vulnerable V. vinifera scions onto V. californica rootstocks that saved the continent’s crops from the dread phylloxera aphid in the 1800s. As the phylloxera had been an accidental import from America in the first place — and American vines had thus needed to develop resistance to it — I guess that was only fair. But I’ve also heard that it was some of the more easterly American grape species that were exported for rootstocks, and that of them it’s Vitis rupestris that gets used here for rootstock.
It was definitely V. californica that the first people here used for cordage, basketry, traps and weirs, small buildings, food, and cooking — they wrapped food in the leaves to roast, thus apparently co-inventing dolmas. The Cahuilla also are supposed to have made of them “a fermented drink,” so wine is a California institution of long standing.
One odd piece of grape natural history is that the three Southwestern grape species, V. californica, V. girdiana, and V. arizonica, occur in distributions that map very closely with the distribution of three alligator lizards: Elgaria multicarinata, E. panamintina, and E. kingii respectively. As the lizards are predators, they presumably don’t eat grapes. Maybe they just like their bugs drunk, or well marinated.

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