If you like grapes but you've never tasted the muscadine varieties, try some. You can find them at the supermarket this time of year if you look closely. Better yet, why not pick your own at a place like Thompson Nursery & Vineyard in Valrico?
Muscadines are a hearty type of grape associated with a number of wines made in the Southeast, as they can withstand heat better than other varieties. Muscadine grapes also have antioxidants that make them particularly healthy.
When I was planning my visit to Thompson Nursery & Vineyard, I already knew I liked muscadine grape-based wines. When I entered the office, owner Randy Thompson and other family members and employees greeted me. Thompson divided his time between answering my probing questions and those from customers.
I learned this is the fifth year that Thompson and his family have the u-pick aspect of their business. In addition to muscadine grapes, they also grow and sell peaches and peach trees certain times of year - including a peach variety curiously called UFO. The nursery also sells koi pond fish and dragon fruit.
The vineyard grows eight varieties of muscadines, which can range in color from slightly yellow (think blonde) to black. One kind of muscadine grown at Thompson was created at the University of Florida in 2009 and is called the Delicious. It's particularly popular.
The folks at Thompson offered me a sample of the Magnolia. It was pleasant but had a thicker skin than other grapes I've eaten. I was then offered a variety called the Summit - and that tasted just like my wine, only in grape form. "When you take her out to pick, put her with the Summits," Thompson said, noting my reaction to the latter variety.
Now, for the record, not everyone is a fan of those thicker grape skins. Plus, the varieties I tried had a few seeds - we're spoiled by our seedless ones at the store.
Still, the grapes obviously have their fans, as I noticed couples there buying several pounds for winemaking and jelly making. In fact, Thompson sells winemaking equipment as well as jellies - Thompson calls his wife the "jelly boss," noting that some customers come from up north and buy several cases of her jelly to take home.
Another advantage to the grapes that Thompson has is that they're fresh - translation, better tasting than what you would find at the store.
Off to pick grapes
Once I finished my talk with Thompson, I boarded a golf cart on our journey through the three-acre vineyard. I spoke with a mother and daughter who were curious to learn about muscadine picking, as they used to pick Concord grapes once a year for a large company in New York. I also overheard another grape-picking couple say that a family member of theirs has a large vineyard in New England.
Although it was hot out picking those grapes, it was fairly easy. I got about 2 pounds in 10 or 15 minutes. There are signs to not eat grapes as you pick them but I confess - I couldn't resist. I tried a couple and enjoyed sucking out the sweet jelly-like insides.
Once I bought my grapes (about $2 per pound), I snacked on some in the car and later back home, shared them with family members - some liked the Summit variety that I picked, while others said it was too sweet.
After some sleuthing online, I decided to blend most of my grapes (seeds and all) into a juice, after which I eliminated the pulp. The juice was a nice addition to a smoothie I made. The folks at Thompson also told me I could freeze some of the grapes if I wanted.
If you'd like to pick muscadine grapes at Thompson Nursery & Vineyard this year, you better move fast. Thompson said there's one more weekend for the muscadine u-pick experience, which will then start again at some point next summer. I've come across other u-pick muscadine grape businesses online, but call to check on their availability before you show up.