If You Aren't Eating Grapes From the Finger Lakes, You're Doing It Wrong
If you’re heading to the Finger Lakes for a weekend of wine tasting this fall, you might only be taking advantage of a portion of the stellar grapes the area has to offer. You should also be sure to keep an eye out for the roadside farm stands selling cartons of plump, juicy table grapes— and homemade Concord tarts.
Long before the region started to gain attention for its wine—now with over 100 wineries and counting—the area specialized in non-vinifera grapes. In fact, much of Welch's juice comes from Finger Lakes farmers who have been growing grapes for the company for generations. Varieties like Concord, Catawba, Niagara and Delaware were planted in the mid-1800's, used first as table grapes before they were utilized in New York's early wine industry. It wasn't until the first European vines were planted in the 1950's that winemakers started experimenting with the Riesling and Chardonnay for which the Finger Lakes are known.
Grape season spans a short six week period, from mid-September to late October, and in Naples, New York, the harvest kicks off with an annual celebration established in 1961. Tens of thousands of visitors flock to the tiny village of 2,500 near Canandaigua Lake in late September to celebrate all things purple at the Naples Grape Festival: bread, cookies, cakes, ice cream, licorice, gummies, fresh-squeezed juice and wine from a dozen local producers.
"If you can make it out of a grape, it is for sale," says Donna Scott, who has served as festival director for the past decade.
But the undisputed highlight of the festival is a contest where local home bakers go head to head with their versions of the town’s famous grape pie. This local specialty came to fruition in 1965, when local restaurateur Al Hodges asked local baker Irene Bouchard to create a pie using the region's ubiquitous Concord grapes. The results were such a hit that Bouchard went on to bake thousands of pies each year, enlisting the help of her sister, husband and two daughters.
"Naples is the Grape Pie Capital of the World," says Mike Joseph, Chairman of the Grape Festival committee, who estimates 60,000 pies are sold annually. "I don't know if they are baked or sold anywhere else. It attracts many visitors to Naples just to purchase a grape pie.”
These days, several bakeries make the pie year-round and about thirty more home bakers sell their goods throughout the fall. Monica Schenk of Monica’s Pies, one of the best-known bakeries in the region, sells about 10,000 grape pies a year, freezing around 10 tons of grape pulp to use year round.
“It’s not easy to make a grape pie,” says winemaker John Brahm of Arbor Hill Winery which, in addition to wine, sells grape pies and a variety of Concord products. “It’s very time consuming. So a lot of times people will try making one and then the next year they’ll say, ‘Ok, I’ve made a grape pie. Now I’m going to let someone else make it!’”
These seasonal treats are so labor intensive because each grape needs to be peeled, then boiled to get the seeds out, strained and added back into the skins, which give the filling its deep purple hue and intensely jammy flavor. From there, cornstarch or tapioca can be used as a thickener and the amount and type of sweetener used also varies by baker. While pies are usually topped with dough, mini tarts are typically showered with a crumb topping.
Jeni Makepeace began “pinching grapes” as a single mom to earn extra income for her family before going on to enter—and win—the Naples grape pie contest in 2001. Now, she can barely keep up with the demand that comes with selling her goods, under the name Jeni’s Pies, to Joseph’s Wayside Market and local restaurants like Roots Café. Makepease uses a blend of Concord and VanBuren hybrid grapes in her filling, and uses locally milled Birkett Mills flour in her flaky oil crust.
This year, home baker Meghanne Ash Freivald placed first in the World’s Greatest Grape Pie Contest for the second time—and her husband Patrick Freivald came in second. Freivald recently taught a grape pie class in Naples, and two of her students placed fourth and fifth.
“Many people are shocked that I share my recipe,” says Freivald. “I am happy to make the recipe public so others can enjoy it and make it for their loved ones.”
But since not everyone has access to fresh Concord grapes (let alone the freshly picked ones Freivald sources from her uncle’s vineyard), the best way to try this Naples specialty is by going straight to the source—or ordering one from Arbor Hill.