I am part of the Vitis genus of the Vitaceae family. I have been with you so long that fossilized leaves, stems, and seeds have been found in Northern hemisphere deposits from the Neogene and Paleogene periods, which cover a stretch of time between 2.6 million and 65 million years ago. Time for my story.
In 2017, a single sentence reverberated on the internet, skidding across social media and breathless blogs: “They did surgery on a grape.” And they had! A video showed a tiny robot making delicate incisions in my thin purple skin before pulling back the translucent layer to reveal my juicy yellow-green flesh below.
The video was meant to demonstrate the surgical tool’s exacting abilities, but the sheer absurdity of the sentence ‘They did surgery on a grape’ caught millions by surprise and I became a nonsensical internet meme.
My popularity long predates my online fame, of course. After all, I also become wine! I was grown by early civilisations in Asia and Europe, but am now a resident of Australia, New Zealand, North America and Africa. Early humans in Asia and Europe learned that given the right conditions, I ferment well – just harvest my bunches, crush them to a pulp, and let the good times roll. (It wasn’t until later that modern microbiology explained that my skins – if they haven’t been peeled off by a mini robot – naturally carry the yeast necessar y for fermentation.) The Romans then spread wine-making to just about every land they conquered. Perhaps Julius Caesar should have said veni, vidi, vini (I came, I saw, I wined).
Early settlers in the US, Australia and New Zealand brought vine stock from Europe to grow vineyards in their fledgling countries. By the 1880s, Antipodean wines were starting to make a stir in Europe, with two Australian wines winning gold medals in France.
Alas, the entire wine world was almost lost in the late 1800s when a tiny yellow aphid-like insect ( phylloxeras) burrowed underground and started eating away at my roots.
Above ground, vintners the world over watched in horror as my vines became yellow and shrivelled. Although they didn’t know it at the time, the phylloxeras pest that wreaked havoc on the European vine rootstock was native to American soil.
The pestilence destroyed as much as 90 per cent of European vineyards, almost sending a centuries-old agricultural tradition to ruin, and the fledgling Australian and New Zealand industries to an early grave. Just in the nick of time, scientists figured out how to save the world’s wine industry: graft European wine varietals onto aphid-resistant American rootstock.
In the mid-1900s, Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, saw the arrival of migrants from European wine-growing countries, who helped expand the wine industries in the two countries. In 1961, George Fistonich, the son of Croatian immigrants, leased land from his father in Auckland. He planted vines and soon started selling wine under the name Villa Maria. Today, Villa Maria is an award- winning wine brand both in New Zealand and abroad.
By the late 1980s and again in the early 2000s, my Australian varieties were in trouble again. Not from an insect this time, but from over supply. A glut of me hit the market, and prices fell through the floor. To correct this trend, the government sponsored growers to pull me out of the ground. Fortunately, in the past five years my production has been on the rise again.
Although you may not be as gregarious afterwards, humans find me a pure pleasure to eat, too. Even my most conventional varieties can be happily popped by the handful into your mouth or set on a cheese board to tame a funky cheddar. If health is your concern, you may want to seek the darker-skinned varieties: the deeper-hued pigments are the botanical world’s most plentiful source of resveratrol, an antioxidant credited with anti-ageing properties (though, frankly, often overhyped ones).
Of course, I also come as a mass- produced dried snack, as generations of schoolchildren know. You may also remember one of my great pop-culture moments, when Marvin Gaye sang ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’.
And while my greatest contribution to the world may be wine, like grapevines, there are many twists and turns in my story.
Coming from a grape’s perspective.
Check out my related post: Have you tried a pineapple tart?