For more information
Grape-picking appointments: (239) 353-4543
Growing/buying/recipes: Florida Grape Growers Association at www.fgga.org
A sip of ice-chilled grape juice at the Skrede household goes down sweet and rich, yet amazingly clean, with no sticky sensation or bitter aftertaste. The little kid in you envisions how wonderful this stuff would be frozen on a stick.
Gordon and Betty Skrede already know. The Golden Gate Estates couple have given out uncounted organic frozen grape pops to children who help their parents pick the ripe orbs in their several acres of vineyards. These are the last weeks of the harvest, and the emerald fruit in the orchard is taking on ripe tones of pale amber, copper and an inky purple. In between customer pickings, Skrede also sells his grapes to organic-produce purveyors such as Oakes and Wynn’s market.
Customers come to the Skredes by appointment at the most unique you-pick operation in Collier County, where crop picking generally conjures up citrus fruits and tomatoes. Yet, says Gordon Skrede, if it’s native to Florida, it can be grown here, and the Muscadine grape ( Vitis rotundifolia) is native.
“You can’t grow the typical wine grapes” such as the sauvignons or the chardonnays, Skrede explains. “They’d just rot and would die off.” But muscadine grapes have been growing wild for centuries in in the Sunshine State, and the domesticated varietals, such as Southern Home and Fry, are happy as far south as Collier.
Skrede, 77, came into the vineyards after Florida A&M University in Tallahasee came to the Collier Fruit Council looking for test growers for the southernmost climate. The program ended decades ago. Skrede’s vineyard did not.
Even today, at 86, he still tromps through his back yard to check his “girls,” the female plants that bear grapes with a 20 percent sugar level.
Muscadine grapes are said to be good sources of polyphenols and nutrients, and Skrede, who will pop one into his mouth, seeds and all, has obviously been the beneficiary.
“There’s a lot of similarity between humanity and grapes,” he says with a start of a smile. The girls are the sweetest. Then I have the ones I’ve made my own terminology for — the cross-dressers. They have the perfect flower. And they pollinate.” The smile broadens into a chuckle: “Then there are the males. They don’t produce anything. They just pollinate.”
Skrede plants the hermaphrodites rather than the males, to offer grapes with a lower sugar content (14 percent) for people with diabetes as well as to provide pollination to the female plants.
Even within the Muscadines, Skrede estimates there are hundreds of varietals that Collier Countians can grow.
“I don’t drink wine, but Southern Home is a Muscadine-Concord cross, and I’ve got clients as far as Pine Island who come to pick grapes because it’s a good wine grape.”
Fry is another variety with a reliable sweetness and size, and a long harvest season, and it has plenty of relatives, such as Early Fry, Black Fry and Florida Fry. Skrede’s vines are thick with clusters of them, and the Skredes will make gallons of their own juice from these, washing and filling the top pot of a triple boiler with the grapes, which draws out the juice into a pan above the water pan as it heats.
“In 20 minutes to a half hour,” he declares.
Being native doesn’t mean being carefree.
The young grapevines that grow so well on his five acres of land attract deer with their tender leaves, and, organic grower that he is, Skrede has found ingenious ways to foil them. In their first year, a PVC tube trains the young vine skyward by filtering sun through only the top. And deer can’t get their snouts into the pipes.
After that, he uses remnants provided by a local salon to tie a poultice of human hair, which repels deer, toward the top of the vine. The vines themselves must be plucked of suckers and sprouts to train them into twin leaders that will bear fruit.
It’s a process that can take three years; growing grapes is not instant gratification. Some grapes are more susceptible than others to fungus, but Skrede is careful to use a drip irrigation that is carried along the arbors in tubing.
“Plants are like people,” he adds. “You need to feed them and give them something to drink.” Skrede has his own mix of nutrients and fertilizer that go into the soil when he plants grapes and at intervals as needed.
Skrede’s philosophy works on much more than grapes. He has a mulberry tree in his front yard that gives him a crop twice a year. His Floridaprince peach bears juicy fruit, and blackberries — also found in Florida — are in a long garden close to the house. Water and warm weather are critical to the last crop; frost, which is more common to Golden Gate Estates than on the coast, can be lethal to the plant. And the spring drought can do in a berry crop.
That kind of setback doesn’t stop Skrede, who has gardened everywhere he and Betty have lived during his career as an engineer.
That includes Venezuela, Puerto Rico, even Saudi Arabia, where the Skredes lived in a home with a backyard of pure sand.
Skrede bought compost, nutrients and Arabian seed bred for the climate of the harshly sunny country.
“And I grew good vegetable gardens in my backyard,” he said, beaming.