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Desert harvest: Growing the fruit of the vine in Tucson
Deborah Mayaan

As I step under the grape arbor, the hot-weather irritability I'd been feeling lifts. I enjoy the shade created by the vines, and think about a line in the song Lo Yisa Goy - "Everyone 'neath  their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid" - based on the words of the prophet Micah. Perhaps that peace is created in part from a cooling of tempers.

"If they think about it, people who live in Tucson have tremendous insight into the scripture," says Rabbi Shafir Lobb of Congregation Ner Tamid, who is gaining new insights into the Torah from her experiences in the desert. She plans to grow grapevines here. While grapes grow in her hometown in Ohio, only in the desert are the shade and drink they offer so critical, says Lobb.
When our ancestors encountered grapevines, they also knew there was a water source there, says Lobb.

The blessing over the fruit of the vine can be said over grape juice as well as either red or white wine. If someone needs to avoid alcohol because they are taking medication or are alcoholic, they are actually prohibited from making the blessing over wine; "you aren't allowed to bless a substance that is bad for you," says Lobb. Instead they need to make the blessing over grape juice or another beverage.

Making wine or juice from grapes takes patience. According to Jewish law, grapes cannot be harvested until the fourth year of a vine's growth. This gives the vine a chance to grow, says Lobb.

Producing fruit "takes a lot away from the plant," says Nancy McCue, a master gardener at the University of Arizona Pima County Cooperative Extension. For the first three years, the plant is pruned back so that "the plant puts its energy into making vine." On the fourth year, the plant is strong enough to produce fruit.

Growing grapes in the Tucson area is easy, says McCue; both wine and table varieties do well here. But because grapes here don't get the cold dormant period that is needed for the optimal ratio of sugar to acid, Tucsonans should expect to produce wines that are drinkable, but not world-class, says Leo Cox of Charron Vineyards in Vail.

Grapes should be planted in October. While they may be trained to grow up a wall, the reduced air circulation will make them more prone to mildew. An arbor can be constructed of just about any material. The Cooperative Extension (4210 N. Campbell, 626-5161) provides a pamphlet, "How to Construct a Grape Arbor."  The shaded area under the arbor may be used as an outdoor living area, or to shade other plants; it will get plenty of sun in  winter, since grapevines are deciduous.
Different varieties of grapes mature at different times. In the Tucson area, early varieties usually mature at the end of June, mid-season grapes from the end of July through late August, and late varieties from the end of August through October, says Cox.

When choosing vines at a local nursery or ordering from Internet sources, make sure the plants are certified to be disease free/resistant, says Cox.

The most challenging aspect of growing grapes may be learning how to prune them properly. Cox says he's happy to demonstrate the technique during the pruning season at his vineyard (November-February).

The varieties sold for our elevation were developed in Europe. But wild grapes also grow in local canyons. The small grapes of Vinis arizonica can  be made into wine, juice and jelly, says Nathan O'Meara, curator of horticulture at the Tucson Botanical Garden.

Whether you find grapes growing wild on your property, or plant varieties imported from the Old World, picking the fruit of the vine is a way to connect with our ancestors, who discovered wild grapes and cultivated this vital plant.

To learn more, consult  Desert Gardening: Fruits & Vegetables by George Brookbank (Tucson, Ariz.: Fisher Books, 1991, 1997) or Leo Cox of Charron Vineyards at 762-8585 or

Deborah Mayaan is a freelance writer, energy work practitioner and manager of the Farmacy Garden, a Tucson non-profit. She offers a free qi gong (Chinese energy healing exercise) class for garden volunteers at 7 a.m. on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays (no class on Sunday, Aug. 14, Tisha B'Av). To learn more, contact her at 881-2534 or


Good grape varieties for Tucson

Dolcetto - early
Malbec - early
Pinot Noir - early
Tempranillo - early
Cabernet Franc - mid
Merlot - mid
Syrah - mid
Petit Sirah - late mid
Barbera - late
Cabernet Sauvignon - late
Grenache - late
Nebbiolo - late
Sangiovese - late

Chardonnay - early
Pinot Gris - early
Sauvignon Blanc - early
French Colombard - early to mid
Muscat Blanc - mid
White Riesling - late

(thinner skinned
and may be seedless)
Thompson seedless (white) - mid-late
Perlette (white) - early
Flame seedless (red) - early

Cox recommends these nurseries: and