Making Ice Wine in Northern Michigan

I ask for a clipper, but the lead worker says, “Just snap the vine—it’s so cold, it snaps right off.” Easy enough. I take photographs of the crew before heading down to my own section of vines. Snap, drop. Oops. I dig in the snow for the fallen bunch of grapes. Snap, drop. Oh-oh, in the snow again.

There’s an art to this after all. I quickly learn to put the crate directly under the grapes. When the grapes fall into the crate, it sounds like stone-size hail hitting a rooftop. My thick gloves come in handy as I frequently dig in the soft snow for fallen fruit.

Averaging $60 to $80 for a slim 375 ml bottle (half the size of a standard wine bottle), ice wine is not cheap. In a goodyear, a ton of grapes yields 40 gallons of juice when pressed frozen; the same amount of fruit, harvested in the fall, produces 170 to 175 gallons. The price also reflects the fact that every ice wine harvest is a high-stakes gamble. There is
no way of knowing if any vines will still have fruit when the weather gets cold enough for the ice wine harvest. During
the long autumn wait, the grapes can be buried by snow, eaten by birds or raccoons, or battered by sleet until the skinsbreak and the juice runs out.

There are many stories of ice wine origin. Germany is often noted for the discovery of ice wine in the late 18th century. It is likely, though, that ice wine dates back to Roman times. In North America, Ontario and New York are renowned for ice wine production. Michigan is becoming a top producer of ice wine, benefiting from the needed climate combination of warm summers, lingering autumns and cold winters with early frosts. Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission Peninsula crafted Northern Michigan’s first ice wine in 1980.

While most winemakers cover their vines in thin, white netting to fend off the birds, Eaker pursues a different strategy. He does not use the traditional Riesling and Vidal Blanc grapes favored by many Michigan winemakers for ice wine, and favored by wildlife as food. He prefers Cayuga, believing the heartier grape is less appealing to animals. Harvesting is made easier with no netting.

The sound of a motor signifies the arrival of Eaker and Walters driving a 1976 rusted, camouflage Ford pick-up. “I bought it for $200,” brags Eaker. They take a truckload of grapes back to the winery to begin the slowmoving process of pressing the grapes.

I eventually wrap up my section of vine, and while admiring my crate of grapes I realize that my effort is nothing compared to the four workers hired by Eaker for the morning. They have filled up crates and gleaned the iced vineyard in two hours, hastened perhaps by the cold.

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