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Through the Grapevine: Getting to Know Subtropical Grape Varieties

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

By Gerry Herbert and Nancy Redfeather - Kawanui Farm - July 2021-Blog #1

Gerry and I want to welcome all of you to our 2-year grape research & education project for Hawai'i. Mahalo for your interest in this project that was made possible by Western SARE (Sustainable Agriculture, Research, & Education Initiative/USDA) and NIFA (National Institute for Food & Agriculture). I’d like to tell you a little about Gerry and how he came to be doing this work.

Gerry began planting grape varieties on his farm in Potter Valley, Mendocino, California in 1973. At that time varieties could be purchased easily at local nurseries. He built redwood arbors that lined the pathways of his various gardens, and grew 12 different varieties. This interest led him to UC Davis in the early 1990s specifically to study grapes and soil sciences that culminated in a degree in Vitaculture. In the 1990s, he worked harvest seasons for the Fetzer Winery and then moved to Kona in 1996. We purchased the land and began Kawanui Farm in 1998.

Gerry began planting grape varieties in 2015, after learning about the Hawai’i Tropical Fruit Growers Grape Project from Ken love, and was able to obtain some varieties during their trials. After many of those varieties failed, he began to research grape varieties and grape breeders who were working primarily in subtropical climates, starting with the tip of Florida. Most of the grape researchers at the University of Florida were looking only at varieties for commercial production and were not interested in subtropical varieties, but during this research he ran across Joseph Fennell.

Joseph conducted his grape research in Florida during the 1930-1940s and was an independent researcher who wanted to grow grapes in the subtropics, as he had seen the many varieties of “wild grapes” growing in the Everglades and had read T.V. Munson’s book written in 1909. Gerry began to learn about those varieties, and from this research, he then discovered other subtropical grape breeders like J. A. Mortensen (University of Florida), R.T. Dunstan (Georgia Experimental Station), Francisco Watlington-Linares (Puerto Rico), and T.V. Munson (Southern Texas-1880 another independent grape breeder). Not much attention had been paid to developing grapes for the subtropics as there was almost no subtropical farmable land in the US. But Munson observed that wild grape varieties were doing well in Texas and they could be crossed with other varieties to produce a more hardy and delicious grape……in fact many grape experts believe that the grape originated in America.

To learn more about T.V. Munson the Grape Man of Texas see:

There are 23 different varieties of wild grapes in America, and every state has wild grapes except Hawaii and Alaska. These varieties of American grapes serve as a natural repository for genetic resources or germplasm used to improve cultivated grapevines worldwide. Over the past 6 years we have vetted over 50 varieties at Kawanui that have come from either the UC Davis GRIN collection, or scions of the Isabella variety that were collected from various gardens around Hawaii Island.

In Hawaii, once a grape scion is rooted and transplanted, it will begin producing some grapes in the third year, but it will be 6-8 years longer before you really know it’s true taste. Vetting varieties is essential for successful future grape production for the home garden or small vineyard, and that takes time. Currently we have 7 varieties of interest that are 6 years old this year and will be producing fruit late summer early fall 2021. One of those is Joseph Fennell's "Tamiami" shown here.

These varieties survived a Volcanic Eruption (May-September 2018) with severe vog conditions in Kona, two successive years of no dry winter season, and over 100 inches of rain each year. We are vetting varieties that can survive changes in climate, tropical diseases, and the voracious Chinese Beetle that we will talk more about that in a later blog. Every area of Hawaii is currently experiencing new weather patterns that will affect all food production now and into the future. We are currently vetting another 15 varieties that are 1-3 years old. Time will tell.

Grape Resource Page

We have added a new Grape Resource Page to the website. This includes links to some of Gerry’s most influential research book titles and articles, and more will be added this year and next. Please browse and download or read online at your convenience.

Videos Page

I recently made the first Grape Videos with Gerry in the vineyards and have posted it on the Video page. They are short conversations with Gerry about specific grape subjects or stories about varieties.

Posting Photos on Instagram - #grapesforhawaii

Many of you told us stories about the grape you have in your garden or on your farm, and if you have time, please post a photo or photos on Instagram #grapesforhawaii

Along with the photos of your grape, or grape cluster, please include a short description of hardiness and taste. Then we can all see what is growing in Hawai’i. Mahalo!

Dolmas: The Stuffed Grape Leaves of Summer

And lastly, I’d like to include a favorite recipe for Dolmas – Stuffed Grape Leaves that are a traditional summer culinary dish in many parts of the Middle Eastern World and have origins in the Palaces of the Ottoman Empire. This dish has many variations and is usually made for a special occasion or festival. In summer, especially right now, many of our grape varieties are putting on their new leaves that are perfectly suited for making Dolmas. You can see the entire recipe and photos here:

In future Blogs, we will be discussing new grape and weather observations by season, working with pests, where and how to plant your grapes, how to prune your grapes, growing grapes using organic practices, sharing culinary uses, sharing stories of successful grape variety parent lines, and other interesting details of our research. We will be posting new photos regularly on the website (Photos 2021) and on Instagram #grapesforhawaii and #kawanuifarm

Our next Blog will be in November 2021 and will summarize the Harvest Season! We will also be listening to your questions and hopefully sharing some answers. So be patient everything will unfold in time.

A Hui Hou,

Gerry Herbert and Nancy Redfeather

Kawanui Farm – Kona, Hawai'i

If at anytime you wish to be removed from our notifications just let me know.

"Table Grapes for Subtropical Hawai’i" is a project made possible by SARE: Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Initiative and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture USDA at 406-994-4785, and NIFA,

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