Lessons in resilience from Chicago's winter grapes

Grape vines take the cold season to prepare to flower in the spring. Maybe I could do the same

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published February 20, 2023 5:30PM (EST)

Red grapes growing on the vine (Getty Images/Inga Rasmussen)
Red grapes growing on the vine (Getty Images/Inga Rasmussen)

At the recommendation of my therapist, I've been going on more walks. It's an inexpensive form of movement, requiring just some sturdy shoes and a sliver of willpower. The only catch is that, at least once a week, I need to walk a path I've never walked before. "Novelty is important when you feel like you're stuck in a rut," he noted.

A rut. That is a generous way to describe my mental health post-holidays. I'd started therapy again during a particularly gray stretch of weather; flat, uniform stratus clouds hung in the sky, seemingly insulating us from sun, rain, snow or any variety, really. On the sixth day of the year, I heard a newscaster say that Chicago, thus far, had seen the sun for only 3% of the possible daylight hours. The next day, I called to try to get an appointment. 

I was sent a virtual form to fill out. One of the first questions asked about my primary reason for wanting to see a professional. I thought about a phone call I had received a few weeks prior, one that left me sitting on my suitcase in an airport terminal bathroom, letting out these sniffling, shuddering sighs that were definitely more disruptive than the tears I was embarrassedly trying to hold back. A friend later messaged me, "Believe me, all across the world, women are crying in airport bathrooms." 

I started to type, I know my family loves me, but I've realized they don't particularly like me, but then deleted it. I don't know if I particularly like myself right now. Delete. And finally, Everything just feels so, so gray. 


Initially, I was a little cynical about my therapy homework — probably because whenever I tossed on my boots and prepared to strike out, I remembered a meme that had gone viral during the first wave of the pandemic. It featured a photograph of an eagle who, I suppose depending on the viewer's mood, looks either determined or beleaguered. He is walking, one black-tipped talon outstretched, wings flat at his side. 

It is captioned: "Me going on my stupid little daily walk for my stupid physical and mental health." 

But, of course, the walks did help, especially on the days when I would chart a new path. Initially, these were spontaneous detours — I turned left instead of right when leaving the supermarket or I walked the dog down a different series of side streets, his nose pushing through thawing slush in search of novel scents. Eventually, however, I began to loosely plot the excursions as my mental map of the city's greenways and alleys steadily expanded. 

I found myself cataloging, in my ratty journal and via cell phone photographs, little moments that surprised me during these walks: there's the vacated tavern with door handles that look like cats holding beer steins; a fence surrounding a Wicker Park home, nondescript except for an etching of the Egyptian sun god Horus carved into the wood; a purple door just a few blocks away featuring a stained glass inlay of the Cheshire Cat. And then there were the grapes


Of course, grapes grow in climates harsher than Chicago's. 

(In fact, while writing this story, a coworker reminded me of the frosty line from "Slings and Arrows," an early 2000s Canadian series, after a character tried some Canadian wine: "I, uh, didn't know they could grow grapes this far north.") 

When on one of my walks I discovered a fence covered in knotted vines, some of which were still bejeweled with grapes that looked like miniature, deflated balloons preserved in frost, I was newly delighted by the reminder that they can not only survive, but seemingly thrive here in the city.

But when on one of my walks I discovered a fence covered in knotted vines, some of which were still bejeweled with grapes that looked like miniature, deflated balloons preserved in frost, I was newly delighted by the reminder that they can not only survive, but seemingly thrive here in the city. 

"Many a homeowner has moved into an older home to find an overgrown grapevine on a trellis, fence or telephone pole in the backyard," Beth Botts wrote for the "Chicago Tribune" in 2005. "If it covers an ugly fence, it likely will be left alone. If it looks like it will drag down the garage, it likely will be exterminated. But with a little attention, that grapevine can be tamed and actually produce a nice crop of grapes." 

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Most of the famous European wine grapes — cultivars of Vitis vinifera like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot — are too tender to be grown in Chicago-area gardens, as well as large swaths of the United States. According to Cornell University's horticulture department, the first colonists of what is now New York State attempted to grow European grapes, but failed. 

"Successive attempts were all failures until the 1960's," a Cornell bulletin about the subject read. "Invariably, the failed vineyards died from winter cold injury." 

Part of this was because V. vinifera vines were particularly susceptible to certain North American pests and diseases, like grape root aphids, powdery mildew and black rot, all which detract from vine function, which in turn reduces winter weather tolerance. However, there are grapes that are simply more suited to bear the cold. Most grapes that grow well in the Midwest are actually descendents of wild grapes, of which there are about 16 species in North America. 

The ones that I saw draped over that fence and others along that block, were likely Vitis labrusca or "Concord" grapes. Described by the Gardenia encyclopedia as the "standard of excellence for blue-black American grapes," Concords are a 19th century hybrid of wild grapes; they are cold-hardy, robust and tart, their dark tannic skin concealing little orbs of sweet green flesh. 


When done properly, I learned from a representative of the Illinois Agricultural Extension, pruning a grape plant should remove 80% to 90% of the present wood. I watched several videos online of gardeners demonstrating the process — neatly snipping with sharp shears at an interconnected network of trunk, canes and shoots. I was struck by how much of the plant itself is actually removed in order to make way for new leaves, flowers and eventually fruit. Numerous educators made the same point: When you feel like you've cut too much, cut just a little more. 

The timing of the pruning is important, too. It should happen after the coldest part of winter has passed, but before buds start to swell. In Chicago, February and early March are good times. 

I thought about this on my daily walks — how resilient these plants were. How after pruning, they probably appeared to most people to be just a tangle of branches, but how I knew their secret. Even in the face of harsh or uninspiring conditions, these grape vines weren't barren or even dormant, really. They were using this season to prepare to flower in the next. 

Maybe with a little care, I could do the same.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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