All of Missouri’s wild grapes (genus Vitis) reportedly make a decent grape jelly; look online for recipe ideas for jelly, pies, juice, sherbet, and wine. The young, tender leaves are a nice (though chewy) addition to a tossed salad, and they can impart a great flavor to a dill crock, if you add a few grape leaves and young tendrils between layers of the vegetables to be pickled. You can stuff grape leaves with a precooked, seasoned rice, herbs, and meat mixture; called dolmas, this is an ancient Mediterranean cooking technique.
If you harvest wild grapes for eating, make sure not to confuse them with the poisonous moonseed, whose leaves and fruits look similar to those of grapes. Moonseed’s flattened, crescent-shaped “moon” seeds within the berries are a key identifier; also, moonseed’s vines do not have shreddy bark like most grapes, and its leaves, though lobed, are not toothed.
Grapes have an extremely long history with humanity, dating to the dawn of agriculture. Before people understood how yeast and fermentation works, the transformation from juice into wine seemed miraculous. Since antiquity, many cultures have used wine in religious rituals. Many spiritual traditions have included deities associated with grapes and wine, notably the Greek Dionysus and Roman Bacchus, but also goddesses and gods from Sumer, Egypt, and China. Wine plays a central role in several biblical narratives and for most Christians is an important part of the Eucharist.
Globally, grapes are a lucrative commercial fruit crop, made into juice, jellies, jams; dried for raisins; and fermented into wine and further processed into beverages such as champagne, sherry, and cognac.
Extracts from grape skins are used as colorants for other foods and beverages, and refined grape juice is used as a natural sweetener in a variety of foods.
Missouri’s wine industry began with an influx of European immigrants in the early 1800s and grew tremendously; by the 1880s, the state was producing 2 million gallons of wine a year. In the 1920s, Prohibition caused the industry’s collapse. Reborn in the 1960s, the state’s wine industry has again flourished, with more than 125 wineries in the state contributing to a $1.76 billion industry.
Summer grape, V. aestivalis, in its Norton/Cynthiana hybrid-cultivated form, is the official grape of Missouri. Complex, dry, red Norton varietals form the centerpiece of many Missouri wineries.
When they were imported to France in the 1850s, American grape vines carried with them the phylloxera root louse, a tiny aphidlike pest endemic to the New World. Old World grapes had no resistance to this North American insect, and almost immediately, a third of French vineyards were destroyed. The louse spread invasively to all the grape-growing regions of Europe. Missourians Charles Riley, Hermann Jaeger, and George Hussman (“the father of the Missouri grape industry”) were key figures in the discovery that rescued the European wine industry. The solution was to graft the European grape varieties onto naturally resistant American rootstocks, enabling the precious European grapes to survive. Missouri and Texas supplied most of the rootstocks that saved the European wine industry. Missouri’s riverbank, sand, and summer grapes were some of the key species for this effort. Missouri’s grafted grapes were also imported to California to improve the wine industry there, as well.