When I was a kid, wild grapes grew in our woodlot on long heavy vines that tangled around some of the oaks and climbed 30 feet or more to the top of some of the trees. If the season was a good one, meaning rains had come at the right time, we had lots of wild grapes.
Ma liked wild grapes — they made great jelly — but beyond the jelly, she didn’t quite know what to do with them. On one of the back shelves in the cellar stood a dozen or so empty bottles — I believe they were left over from Prohibition Days, but I wasn’t knowledgeable enough at the time to ask about that. One summer, when the wild grapes hung heavy and after the grape jelly jars were filled, Ma decided to bottle up some of the grapes with warm water. She had no recipe in mind; she and Pa didn’t talk about what they were planning in front of my brothers and me. She had grape wine on her mind, as I look back on what she was doing.
She and Pa chucked the plump little grapes into the bottles, filled them with warm water, and then capped them with the bottle capper we had (likely also left over from Prohibition). She and Pa then carried the filled bottles to the basement, lined them up on the basement shelf, and mostly forgot about them.
A few weeks later, all of us were awakened to an explosion. Pa quickly decided the location of the loud noise was the cellar. Upon observing the shelf with the bottles of grapes lined up in a row, quickly he saw that one of them had blown up, scattering brown glass all about.
He gently carried one of the intact bottles upstairs and as we gathered in the kitchen, Ma, Pa, my brothers and me, he asked Ma to hold the bottle while he opened it with the ever-present pliers he always carried with him. With the cap removed, partially fermented grapes shot out of the bottle like machine gun bullets, just missing Ma’s nose before they struck the ceiling and then began raining down, along with the odorous juice.
It happened so quickly that Pa stood with an astounded look on his face, and Ma with an empty bottle, wondering what was dripping down on her head.
My brothers and I began laughing, for to us it was about the funniest thing we’d seen since the last Fourth of July when we blew up the neighbor’s mailbox with a big firecracker. Pa, too, had a big grin on his face. But not Ma. All she could see was a fermented grape mess, all over the kitchen ceiling, kitchen table and floor.
Pa retreated to the cellar, and using the outside cellar door, carried all of the remaining grape bottles outdoors where we opened them and allowed the grapes to shoot out on the lawn. Ma’s experiment had failed. But fermented grapes raining down from the kitchen ceiling remained one of our best family stories.
A few years after the unfortunate grape experience with the exploding bottles, we had another bumper crop of wild grapes. This time, my Aunt Louise offered a recipe for making balloon wine, which my mother made several times. I can’t say it was my favorite tasting wine, but it was wine and she and Pa had a good time making it, and offering it to friends and relatives who stopped by on occasion.
And on the positive side, none of the wine bottles blew up as I recall.
Excerpted from “Old Farm Country Cook Book,” Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2017. Go to www.jerryapps.com to learn more about Jerry’s work.