Canandaigua wine grower Len Barron is scheduled to head to New York for a show taping
CANANDAIGUA — One day upon returning home, Len Barron played back the message on the phone.
The caller, a producer with Martha Stewart’s PBS television show, wanted to talk about grapes.
Yeah, right, he thought. Not that he can’t talk about grapes.
Since he and wife Angela started Barron Pratt Barn and Vineyard with 1,800 vines on 5 acres of his property 26 years ago, he estimates he’s lifted 6 to 8 tons of grapes a week, 60 pounds at a time, during the roughly two-month harvest every fall.
Each year, he produces about 30 tons of 17 varieties of table grapes — seedless and seeded. Half of that goes to schools in Ontario, Wayne and Livingston counties while the remainder is sold fresh at farm markets, supermarkets and Community Supported Agriculture programs.
So, yes, he knows grapes — he is known as the “Grape Guy,” dubbed by students in the Victor Central School District with a nickname that stuck and works.
“I use it all the time,” Barron said. “When I call a customer and say the Grape Guy is calling, they all know who it is.”
Martha Stewart dishes a lot about food on her "Martha Bakes" show, but how does she know of the Grape Guy?
One of the guys had to be setting him up, Barron thought, or at least that’s what he thought until he called back and determined the offer was legit. Barron has no idea how the show heard of him and he doesn’t know just yet what’s in store for him, but he does know taping will be in Manhattan next month and they wanted someone in New York state or at least in the northeast who grows table grapes, Barron said.
Back when Barron started, very few farmers grew table grapes solely, he said.
“Everybody grows wine grapes,” Barron said. “That’s why I went against the grain, and it’s worked out well.”
The 17 grape varieties grown on Barron’s property take on the names of small towns, such as Fredonia and Van Buren. Press him on his favorite, Barron offers two — Canadice and Himrod.
Out in his vineyard, some of the grapes are experiencing veraison — a French word for the ripening of the grape as it begins to turn color from green to purple.
The time for picking is nearly ripe.
Usually, he and his wife, Angela — and during the last few years, some seasonal help — begin picking right after Labor Day. The grapes are running about eight days early, he said, although cooler weather may slow the process
The grapes are picked right up to the first frost, generally the third or fourth week of October. Because he has so many varieties, the grapes come into harvest one after the other, a week or so apart.
“That was probably the smartest thing we did in the whole process,” Barron said. “I made some dumb decisions, but that was a good one.”
Barron got into the business of grapes after deciding to leave behind 31 years in industry, at Xerox Corp. Living just outside of Cheshire and so close to Naples, growing grapes was a natural idea.
“I love working outside,” Barron said. “Of course, we’re in the grape region, so why not put some grapes in?”
The grapes are handpicked and hand selected, because they go to stores and schools, said Angela Barron, who worked for 20 years at Xerox.
“They have to be perfect,” she said.
Todd Fowler, who is food service director for the Canandaigua and Bloomfield school districts and serves with the New York School Nutrition Association, said Barron is reliable — he calls on a Monday and delivers by Thursday — and makes the farm-to-school program, in which locally grown fruits and veggies are served in cafeterias, easy.
And kids eat his grapes right up.
“Kids love grapes,” said Fowler, noting Barron’s grapes come in colors of blue, red, black and purple. “Kids eat with their eyes.”
All of the Barrons’ grapes are used somehow. Angela said she doesn’t like to see things go to waste, so she learned how to make jam and then pies.
For six weeks every year for over 20 years, she estimates she’s baked over 2,000 pies and can’t even count how many jars of jam she’s produced, although she has cut back in recent years.
“You get all caught up in the excitement and the romance,” she said.
And that, perhaps, will come through in Barron’s experience with Stewart, who wanted to pay a visit to the vineyard but schedules couldn’t be worked out in time, Barron said. He’s looking at the TV opportunity as a way to talk about grapes and educate viewers about a fruit they think they know well, but maybe don’t.
For instance, did you know that you may not be eating grapes the best way to maximize their flavor?
“There’s nothing wrong with eating the whole grape, but the real way and the way to get the most enjoyment out of the grape is to slip the skin off and just have the pulp and the juice,” Barron said. “There tends to be bitterness in the skin and most people don’t realize that.”
The senses are a good way to determine the right time to pick the grape from the vine, but he also uses a tool called a refractometer to measure a grape’s brix — that’s the sugar content of the juice of the grape.
But you don’t have to be a guru of the grape to guess the best tool of all.
“We pride ourselves on the quality of the grapes,” Barron said. “The final decision is taste.”