This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 16, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Where I came from, mustang grapes were so plentiful they were often considered a nuisance. One section of the woods behind our home in Dime Box was so thick with grape vines that my brother and I thought of it as a jungle where we half expected to find Tarzan, Jane, Boy, and Cheeta there. There was no shortage of bees (needed for pollination) in the 1930’s and 1940’s, so clusters and clusters of grapes on vines were readily found along the fences, on the bushes, and in the trees, some runners as long as 300 feet.
There was only one problem, however, -- mustang grapes are very acidic, even to the extent that handling them could burn your hands. And my brother and I learned the hard way, you don’t dare eat the fruit (as you do with domestic grapes), as the acidity would burn the lining out of your mouth! So what do you do with these wild, Texas grapes?
My brother and I did nothing with them, -- except perhaps to throw them at each other. However, Mama, who valued them highly, used them for making grape jelly and homemade wine. She made grape wine out of wild grapes and berry wine out of domesticated black berries. I don’t mean to be disrespectful toward the memory of her, but I did not like the taste of any of her wines, either grape or berry, either as a child or as an adult. One slurp of her homemade wine would put you into a diabetic coma.
After I left home, Mama wrote to me just about every week (no texting or emailing in those days), telling me that she had dug up her garden, planted potatoes, etc., and these reports included when and how she made her wine, along with some very funny stories about her regular activities, which sometimes were more like escapades. I used to save her letters, because they made good fodder for my “Images” column, which in those days I wrote for the East Bernard Tribune.
If you were a Tribune reader years ago, you might recall that she claims to have invented a better way to make wine out of mustang grapes. She put the grape juice in a plastic bucket, and placed it on the kitchen table to ferment. To speed up the fermentation process, she put double the sugar she normally used, not realizing that sugar actually slowed down the fermentation process. She also added some yeast, can you believe!
She kept the bucket of grape juice on the kitchen table to ferment until ready to drink. Normally, she would put a balloon on the end of the tube coming out of the bucket, but since she was speeding up the fermentation process, she placed a beach ball on the end of the tube. One night, like a hot air balloon, the beach ball lifted the wine bucket off the table and relocated it on the floor. Or so she claims. She didn’t know how this happened, but she did know as a fact that the wine bucket was on the table when she went to bed and was on the floor when she got up the next morning.
She informed me in her letter she was thereafter keeping the wine bucket in the bathtub at night, because “it wouldn’t behave,” and it still wasn’t fermented enough to suit her. That was one of the funniest letters I ever received from her, and so far I have not been able to find it to reread it. Over the years, I always thought that the funny things which happened in her daily routines of life were told in her letters with a serious, naïve attitude; but I have since come to think that she really was a closet humorist, grammar errors and all!
Recently, I have gone through every card in Mama’s old recipe box, and I cannot find one recipe for either wild grape wine or tame berry wine. Since my grandmother also made homemade wine, I’m sure that they made wine the Wendish way. In her book, As I Remember, Dora Weiser Fischer, who is also a Wendish descendant, included a recipe for wild grape wine in the recipe section of her book. Dora Weiser was born in Fedor, Texas, in 1905, and attended Trinity Lutheran School in Fedor. My mother was born in 1908, and attended the same school in Fedor for a couple years anyway. It seems highly likely that they went to school together and knew each other. It also seems likely that their Wendish parents knew one another, and both girls would have been brought up with the same Wendish traditions. Thus I want to share Dora Weiser Fischer’s wine-making recipe, no doubt similar to Mama’s.
Wild Grape Wine
Mash seven and one half gallons of wild grapes and let sit for 3 days. Take hulls off. Strain through colander and then through cheese cloth. Mix 1 gallon water with 3-5 lbs. of white sugar. Combine grape juice, water and sugar together in quart jar and add some each day to this mixture as it bubbles out. In about 2 weeks, it mostly will quit bubbling. Put sand sack on. After it quits bubbling it is ready. (Dora Weiser Fischer, As I Remember)
Dora Fischer’s wine-making method doesn’t include the use of either a balloon or a beach ball, which I can assure you would have been a non-Wendish approach, and Mama, from what she said in her letters, would have used 6 to 8 pounds of white sugar rather than 3 to 5. No doubt it was Mama’s predilection for very sweet wine that caused me to want my wines dry, very dry.
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.