For years John Braham, owner of the Arbor Hill Grapery in Bristol Springs, has proclaimed Naples the “grape pie capital of the world.” His store’s inventory of gourmet food products has included grape pies for 14 years and canned grape filling for nearly as long. Arbor Hill is just up the road from the picturesque village of Naples, where each fall changing leaves bring thousands of visitors to admire the colorful vistas of the surrounding valley. Added to the colors is an annual Grape Festival in late September, celebrating the harvest of the local grapes. It’s no wonder an estimated 20 local bakers are prepared to spend countless hours each season rolling out flaky pie crusts and preparing the rich purple-hued filling made from Concord grapes, to satisfy the growing appetite for grape pies.
The preparation and ingredients for the pastry and pie fillings vary from baker to baker but the Concord grape is considered by all as the best choice because of its combination of tartness and sweetness with deep color. Braham describes the Concord variety as a “slip-skin grape,” meaning the pulp separates easily from the skin.
“It takes a long time to make a grape pie,” says Susan Gibson, who has been baking them for a local produce stand, Joseph’s Wayside Market, since 1976. “You have to pinch each solitary grape so that you have the pulp, cook the pulp up on the stove, then bring it to a boil, run it though a food mill to get the seeds out, because grapes have seeds. Then you put the pulp and skins back together and add your sugar and thickener,” explains Gibson, who was a prize-winning pie baker when she was in 4-H. She began baking a few grape pies to sell to customers at Bob & Ruth’s Restaurant in Naples, where she waitressed from 1964 to 1976.
Although Gibson works a full-time job, she looks forward to the seven weeks of pie-baking. “It’s nice to get the compliments, and I wouldn’t do it if it were torture,” laughs Gibson. “I work into the evenings and weekends, but it’s better than having a part-time job all year round. I know it’s just seven weeks of hard work,” adds Gibson, who like other bakers, has some help with her pie-baking.
By all accounts the grape pie first became popular in Naples in the 1960s with local restaurateur, Al Hodges. “Al Hodges built the Redwood Restaurant in 1955 and it was around 1965, when looking for something new to attract people, he came up with trying grape pies,” recalls Irene Bouchard who has lived in Naples since 1954. “His chef got a recipe from an elderly German lady in Naples and started making the grape pies. It got to the point where people were asking to take a whole pie home and this is when it got overwhelming for them,” explains Bouchard. “I was across the street with a little bake shop, selling a variety of things — pies and bread and cookies, and he asked if I would help him bake grape pies to take home.”
About the same time, Jane Gentner on County Road 12 began selling grape pies at her roadside stand for a modest $1.00. “People stopped to buy apple pies,” recalls Gentner, “so why not grape?” Jane and her husband David had 38 acres of vineyards at that time, selling their grapes to wineries like Taylors in Hammondsport. When the profit margin fell out of that due to the importation of inexpensive concentrated grape juice from other countries, the couple reduced their acreage to five, just enough to meet their own needs.
Gentner says there are now three generations of her family working together picking grapes and making pies during the grape season. The stand has expanded to a shop in the barn and Gentner is now selling pies to the children of former customers. “They’re like family; that’s what keeps me going,” says Gentner, who won first prize on three separate occasions in the “Worlds Greatest Grape Pie” contest at the Naples Grape Festival. Her secret to successful pie-baking? “I personally make every crust,” says Gentner, who says she has a lot of people who just order her crust.
Irene Bouchard, now a very youthful 84, still bakes pies, but she no longer turns out 17,000 to 18,000 a year as she did in the 1980s with the help of her sister, husband, and two daughters. She calls herself retired, but hasn’t stopped baking all together and taught her granddaughter pie-baking, which will carry on the family tradition. “You have to be dedicated,” says Bouchard, “and like to work hard.”
Those attributes are in plentiful supply at Monica’s Pies on Route 21. In a newly renovated building Monica Schenk and her mother, Katherine (Kay) Clark, run a year-round pie-baking business. In addition to grape, raspberry, strawberry, strawberry-rhubarb, and blueberry all have a season. She and her mother divide the tasks, with Kay specializing in pastry, and Monica the fillings. “95 percent of our customers are repeat customers,” says Schenk of the operation that began 20 years ago, adding, “We pick up a few more every year that are driving by.” At Monica’s Pies there’s a self service cooler on the front porch for pies along with a cupboard filled with jellies customers help themselves. Grape pies are $7.00.
Schenk is expecting a few more customers after the August airing of the Cable Food Network program “Food Finds.” A segment wa taped on locally produced foods which included grape pies made by Schenk.
“That was fun,” recalls Schenk of the interview taped in October 2001 which included her husband Greg because he picks grapes by hand from vines on their property. What will many millions of cable viewers do for business? “It’s kinda scary,”says Schenk. “We’ll just have to take it as it comes. We’ve got it all figured out how we’re going to ship them out. I can the grape filling, enough to make one pie, Mom makes the (baked) crust: we wrap it in bubble wrap and put it in a pie box and send it with a crumb topping. The customer can put it together, bake it and east it fresh,” says Schenk. The $16.00 cost includes shipping.
Most agree that grape pie appeals primarily to visitors to Naples. Jake Joseph, owner of Joseph’s Wayside Market finds that at his Penn Yan location he only sells 10% the number of grape pies he sells in Naples. “It’s so unique to Naples, “says Cindy Trezeciak who has sold pies from her home on Academy Street in Naples since 1978. Out her back window she has a view of Widmer’s Winery and occasionally tour buses at the winery stop at her house for grape pies. The baker credits her brother-in-law who stood looking at the tourists at Widmer’s as saying, “l really think you could turn these tourists into pie customers!” She laughs remembering how she pulled her mom’s recipe for pie crust and combined it with a grape pie recipe she got from her homemaking teacher..
Trezeciak works part-time and only makes grape pies during the fall season. She also provides pies and filling for Arbor Hill Grapery where the filling is sold in quart jars. “It’s all pretty well family-oriented,”she says of her operation. Double ovens allow her to bake 16 pies at a time on rotation. She also makes grape tarts, grape bread, cheesecakes, while her Aunt Eunice Stopka makes grape coffee cake.
Trzeciak husbands made a special Dutch door entrance to their home where customers can see the kitchen. “I want to keep that image of the person with the apron on, greeting you at the door, with the big ball of dough on the table,” says Trzeciak, adding, “The customers like the smell and like to see where they’re getting the pie.” The youthful grandmother works out for her strenuous baking schedule by walking and weight training. “It really does pay because you’re lugging and you’re lifting. Keeping myself in shape keeps my strength up,” says Trzeciak.
“I am blessed to do this,” says Trzeciak “I never went to college. I married young and I look at it, ‘wow, I didn’t have to spend four years to have a business’. That’s what keeps me really up. I think we (the pie makers) are all entrepreneurs even the grape pie ladies who only make 400-500 a year because they are contributing. We help keep the farmers in business,”say the long time baker who uses two tons of grapes in six weeks. “Years ago people just bought grapes and grape juice. Now they buy a grape pie,” says Trzeciak with a smile.
Where to buy grape pies:
Naples Grape Festival: September 28-29, 2002
Arbor Hill Grapery
6461 Route 64
Bristol Springs, Naples, NY
5 Academy Street
7535 County Road 12
Joseph’s Wayside Market
201 South Main Street (Rout 21)
7599 Route 21 South
by Laurel C. Wemett