Making Ice Wine in Northern Michigan

Dawn is just breaking as the temperature dips to a brisk 14 degrees, a cold so deep it hurts, yet the day rates perfect for hand-harvesting grapes from frozen vines. The third consecutive day with temperatures hovering around 17 degrees convinces passionate winemakers Alan Eaker and Shawn Walters to rally a handful of workers to Eaker’s Northern Michigan vineyard, 45 North, in the hills of Leelanau County.

This is the 2008 harvest of ice wine, a dessert wine that Eaker considers nectar of the gods. “There is no way to describe the beauty, elegance and special nature of ice wine,” Eaker says, insisting that appreciation can only be conveyed through taste.

Vintners make ice wine from healthy grapes left on vines to freeze. The grapes are pressed when still frozen, and the highly concentrated juice becomes a distinctive, aromatic dessert wine after a long fermentation. Walters emailed me several days before today’s brittle-cold harvest, predicting that today would be the day for the picking. If I wanted to experience the moment, I needed to quickly rearrange my schedule and drive four hours north to Leelanau Peninsula.

Full-time winemaker and part-time weather forecaster, Walters is one of Northern Michigan’s premiere vintners. Walters was winemaker at one of Michigan’s largest wineries, Leelanau Wine Cellars, for several years before taking the helm as winemaker at 45 North, in Lake Leelanau. He also owns One World Winery Consulting and makes wine for nearly a dozen wineries. As consulting winemaker for Longview Winery, Walters raked in 22 medals in Longview’s first year of operation alone. He boasts hundreds of medals for wines he has crafted, yet he’s still a few years shy of 40.

Grateful for the heads-up from Walters and for the obliging chill, I donned layers of Smartwool, fleece and other cold-proof gear before dawn on December 8. I hummed along to Christmas tunes on my drive up the peninsula from Traverse City, excited to be on the new adventure.

Pulling into Eaker’s farm, I am greeted by Walters and Australian Cattle-dog Arlo. The 1890 weatherworn, timber-framed barn with a simple Longview sign juts above two feet of snow, and the 1910 farmhouse blends into the wintry landscape. I hop out of my car, silently give thanks for my new tires’ traction on the twisty, snowy rural roads, and get to my first question: “Have you started to harvest?” Walters points to the vineyard, “They’re out there already.”

He seems surprised to learn I want to harvest some frozen grapes myself. “Take the two-track to the vines; we’ll be out in a bit to load up some grapes,” he says. Walters explains that a quarter-mile of vines bearing fruit hold this year’s harvest.Four workers, speaking in rapid Spanish and wearing dark layers and bright yellow gloves, quickly move down the vines, snapping and dropping the frozen grapes into crates. The workers’ ensembles contrast sharply against the snowy white backdrop and stark brown vines. There are no lush green grape leaves in sight.

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