The perfect time to stroll through the vineyard on Neil Cherry’s Morgan County farm is on a clear day when the vines are heavy with plump fruit and the sun coaxes a sweet aroma from the ripening clusters. There’s only one way to make this perfect moment even better. Pick a few grapes, taste and get acquainted with the complex and genuine flavors only Ohio-grown table grapes can deliver.
Most of the land on Cherry’s 405-acre farm hosts native and planted woodlands. Thirty acres produce orchard fruits, primarily apples, vegetables, and slightly more than one acre is reserved for growing more than a dozen varieties of table grapes, mostly native seedless varieties. Some vines have been producing grapes more than 40 years, including Himrod, a sweet yellow seedless variety that grows in large, loose clusters, or Canadice, a cultivar of a red seedless with compact clusters and a slightly spicy flavor.
“Native Ohio table grapes varieties are not as familiar looking as the ones people are used to seeing in the grocery store that come from California or Chile,” said Cherry, but he believes “they simply taste better with a true grape flavor, fully developed and nicely sweet.” Taste is the deal maker when Cherry sells his grapes from his on-farm market or at the Athens, Zanesville and Reynoldsburg farmers markets throughout the week.
Cherry’s table grapes begin ripening in early August, starting with Reliance, a tender, sweet pink-fruited seedless variety used for jellies and juice, followed by a number of early ripening Concord varieties including Fredonia, Van Buren and Buffalo. True Concords, one of the oldest cultivated grape varieties in Ohio and the base for homemade jelly and sweet wine, ripen after Labor Day.
Another Concord variety, Sheridan, a late ripening, hardy variety, is “somewhat underappreciated” in Cherry’s opinion. “They won’t get picked until October so they stay on the vine a lot longer than other varieties, developing a wonderfully rich flavor and building more sugar.” His biggest challenge with this variety is to keep his U-pick customers out of the vineyard until then.
“The most important part of growing grapes are the soil conditions yet the vines are very adaptable,” Cherry said.
Above ground, Ohio’s weather will help determine a good grape growing season.
“If the humidity is high and we have too much rainfall, it could cause a disease problem,” said Cherry. “In a dry summer, the disease pressure is less and the flavor of the grapes is always better.” Additionally, too many cloudy days are always a limiting factor in fruit production.
For Cherry and a handful of Ohio farmers, table grapes are a “boutique” or specialty crop that doesn’t command much acreage among the state’s 1,600 acres of vineyards. Christy Eckstein, the executive director of the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, said the demand for Ohio table grapes was highest almost a century ago when prohibition was enacted in 1919.
“Grapes then were only used for juice and fresh consumption, and some for making sacramental and homemade wine,” she said. “Once prohibition ended in 1933, grapes went back into commercial winemaking.”
The places you’re likely to find table grapes are at local farmers markets where growers like Neil Cherry are glad to introduce you to this unique, truly local fruit. Judging by the happy looks on their faces, Cherry knows that most people have never tasted grapes like these before.
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate.
10340 State Route 669 NW
Crooksville, OH 43721
Q: What is the difference between a table grape and a wine grape?
A: One of the biggest differences is that most table grapes are seedless, have thinner skins and are larger in size. Wine grapes are smaller, have thick skins and have a higher sugar content.
— Christy Eckstein, Ohio Grape Industries Committee