A special summer treat is ripening throughout the sandy soiled ranch country of deep South Texas. Timely rains have triggered a bumper crop of wild mustang grapes, and both man and wildlife are reaping a bountiful harvest.
Every summer around mid July the tangled grape vines that entwine the venerable oak mottes in Kennedy, Brooks and adjacent counties yield their annual vintage, but this years fruiting is unusually prolific. The grapes are reaching their prime, and nearly all have ripened from a light green hue to a reddish blush and finally a rich, dark purple.
The mustang grape, (vitis mustangensis), grows wild over much of south, central and east Texas and is also found in northern Mexico. Just like the historic wild mustangs that once roamed the lone star state, this hardy grape has managed to survive the extremes of Texas weather from soaring heat to bone chilling northers. The vines climb trees, cover brush and run along fences putting out runners up to 300 feet. In southernmost Texas the grape vines concentrate in scattered stands of towering oaks covering several acres.
When Spanish missionaries arrived in Texas in the 1600's, they found wild grapes in abundance and used them as food and later for sacramental wine. In the late 1800's an influx of European immigrants arrived and brought with them wine making skills that further utilized the native grapes.
In 1882 Mifflin Kenedy bought 400,000 acres north of Raymondville and named it La Parra Ranch after the wild grapevines growing there. Today, 125 years later, the grapevines are draped with ripening clusters of succulent fruit.
Myriad creatures are attracted to the scattered arbors; and deer, birds, raccoons, coyotes and others dine on the luscious grapes. The vines closest to the ground are first to be plucked by browsing whitetails, which are able to reach even higher by standing on their back legs. However, birds have no height restrictions, nor do opportunistic raccoons that readily plunder the uppermost branches in search of sweet fruit.
I have seen at least half a dozen different species of birds feed on mustang grapes, from wild turkeys to kiskadee flycatchers, but the primary diners seem to be golden fronted woodpeckers and green jays. Both these birds are relatively abundant in the stands of oak trees where the grapes abound, but perhaps even more importantly both species have relatively large, sharp bills that are well adapted for plucking and removing the husks.
While cardinals and pyrrhuloxia are often content to scour the ground for discarded grapes, aggressive green jays and woodpeckers readily snatch them from the vine. If the grapes are not too ripe, the skillful birds tear the tough skin from the fruit while it is still on the vine, but if not they will deftly pluck it and then pry off the skin to get at the savory white pulp.
Green jays are particularly adept at holding the grape between their feet and tearing at it until the skin is removed. Sometimes, in a wonderfully acrobatic move they will even toss the coveted fruit into the air and gulp it on descent. Green jays are messy eaters, and they scatter plenty of fruit to the ground for other birds and terrestrial animals.
While native critters savor the mustang grape straight from the vine, most folks find the raw fruit quite tart. Mustang grapes are very acidic, but when properly prepared render a delightful wine and very tasty jelly.
Luke Oliver from San Benito has been making mustang grape jelly for more than 30 years, and the retired principal has a tried and true recipe. "My wife Marion and I started going up and picking grapes and making grape jelly back in 1975," Oliver said. "The first year I made 12 pints for my teachers at Christmas. I had 12 teachers. They enjoyed it so much that we kept up the tradition until I retired in 1990. The last year I was principal at Ed Downs we made about 72 half pints."
Oliver continues to make mustang grape jelly annually, but now he prepares it for family. "I pick 48 quarts, that is one ice chest, and that gives me enough to do whatever I want. I've got a drawer with hardware cloth on the bottom, and I just put handfuls of grapes in there and spray them with a hose and wash off the bugs and debris. Then I heat them on the stove. I don't boil them. I mash them with a potato masher, and I don't put water in them. Water just dilutes the juice."
"Then I put it in the cheese cloth, stems, seeds and everything, and I strain it so all I have is juice. I just put five cups of it in a zip lock bag and throw it in the freezer. Then in December when I am ready to use it, I just thaw it."
"Our recipe is five cups of juice, seven cups of sugar and one box of sure gel. Cook that until it starts to thicken and then just bottle it. That's it."
"If you like jelly with a little tart flavor, pick them at the end of June when you have a few green ones still in there. If you want it just plain sweet, wait until the end of July when all the grapes are ready and you get a sweeter jelly. Also, Marion has found out that if you pick them early the acid in them can really burn your hands. The sweeter the grapes the less problem you will have with your hands."
If you want to sample a vintage bottle of mustang wine, the Poteet
Country Winery south of San Antonio has two varieties available, one a full-bodied red and another flavored with mesquite. The blend garnered high praise from wine aficionado Jack Keller who wrote, "The flavors of mustang and mesquite, each of which is bold in its own right, blended together as if by marriage. The result is a wine as big as the clear blue skies and as vibrant as a newly broken filly given her own reins."
Steve Earle in his song "Mustang Wine" had a slightly different take on a perhaps a less skilled bottling effort. "My friend Bill lives down in the projects...Stays drunk all the time...He makes Mustang Wine...He makes Mustang Wine...He makes Mustang Wine and he stays drunk all the time...Well, Mustang grapes, they ain't too sweet...But that Mustang wine just can't be beat."
It is a tradition with many families to harvest the grapes every summer, and this year there are plenty to go around for both man and wildlife. Just watch your step under the wild grape arbor, as there is always the chance a diamondback rattler has slithered in to ambush an unwary diner.
Copyright 2007 Richard Moore