Nevermind those wine grapes, Concords yield sweet juices

By Marilou Shea

Zeb’s Vineyard produces mighty fine grapes.

But they typically aren’t found in an award-winning bottle of wine.

Marilou Shea, Food Truck Academy

Marilou Shea,
Food Truck Academy

Unlike the vinifera primarily grown on the West Coast that have ties to European heritage, Zeb’s grape varietals harken from good ole America.

The juicy Concord is named after its namesake Massachusetts town.

They’re the kind of grape found in a wide-array of Welch’s products, including juices in the grocery store, and they’re grown in the Riverview area of Pasco.

Our state ranks first in the nation for Concord grape production.

Jerry Czetobar, or Dr. Grape as he is affectionately known among growers, has overseen a modest 80-acre vineyard since 1990. His family worked with Welch’s since the co-op came to Washington in the early 1950s.

When they began growing grapes, Concords were dominant and the wine industry was very small, especially compared to today’s numbers. There were only 12 wineries back then, compared to the 900-plus operating in the state today.

Why grow juice grapes instead of wine grapes? They’re easier to grow and less, well, finicky.  Concords don’t require a “perfect” location. They can take or leave the heat and they are hardier all-around, withstanding the cold weather “in the Basin versus up the Yakima Valley,” Czetobar said.

Czebotar’s vineyards are at a 400-foot elevation and they just so happen to be the earliest vineyards in all of the National Grape Cooperative — which owns Welch’s — producing higher yields than average.

Zeb’s Vineyards produces 800 tons to 1,000 tons of grapes annually, which in turn yields 200,000 gallons of juice.

Washington gets the highest yields and the best sugars of any of the Concord-producing states, Czetobar said.

His must be the grapes my family has swooned over in the fall months when driving through Pasco. It’s a legacy we’ve passed down to my nieces and nephew when they come to town.  As soon as they take the right exit off Interstate 182, they roll down their windows to inhale the ripe, fruitiness to welcome fall.

Why Welch’s versus going solo? It’s family farmer-owned, for one thing, and that typically translates to smaller-scale vineyards. And that’s important for farmers like Czetobar, who love what they do or they wouldn’t be doing it.

While there are bigger vineyards than Zeb’s, they’re not so big as to be considered enormous in comparison to say, a wine grape vineyard.

Once picked, the juice grapes in our region have to be transferred to a processing center in Grandview within a set time or they will be turned away for not meeting grade requirements. At Welch’s, contracts are established for every acre of every vineyard in the co-op to meet and maintain these high quality standards.

Being a member of a co-op like Welch’s also has ownership advantages over working directly with private wine companies. Among them are Welch’s ability to process the grapes, make the products and then market and sell them. It’s no small feat. And this frees up small farmers like Czebotar, who have a genuine love of the land and would rather be on their tractors.

There are 900 members in the National Grape Co-op in five states: Washington, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York — oddly none in Massachusetts any longer. That means that 900 growers own Welch’s.

Czebotar thinks that beats going private any day.

Industry challenges include Concord grape over-production from five, large nationwide crops that dropped the cash price over the last five years, which in turn affected the entire juice grape industry.

Like other commodities, the operational costs to do business have risen and the value of land goes up every year. In Pasco, an acre can run between $40,000 to $48,000 and developers are gobbling them up.

Czetobar claims he’s the last, full-time farmer (and the happiest) in the Riverview area of Pasco.  One of his mentors, Vaughn Steele, worked his vineyard until he was 87.

Not pressed for time, Czetobar said he hopes to follow Steele’s example and produce many more grape crops. His true joy comes from working in his vineyards. He said he’s doing it not for the love of money but for the love of the land.

Let’s raise a glass of Concord to that.

[panel title=”About Marilou Shea:” style=”info”]
Food Love columnist Marilou Shea is the creator of Food Truck Fridays and adjunct faculty at Columbia Basin College’s Food Truck Academy.

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