Making Ice Wine in Northern Michigan

During our chat fest, Walters tests the nectar’s Brix around noon, finding it at a rich 40 Brix. Brix expresses the sugar content in grapes, although it’s not a direct measurement of sugar. Rather, it is a measurement of density relative to water. Pure water is zero degrees Brix. In the winemaking process, as sugar is consumed by yeast, Brix goes down. As the yeast consumes sugar, it produces alcohol, and, when all the sugar is consumed, the wine is considered dry. On the other spectrum, ice wine tends to be very, very sweet, making it a luscious dessert wine.

Ice wine sweetness can vary; Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery on Old Mission Peninsula produces a drier ice wine at 16 percent sugar residual. Roughly 15 wineries in Michigan craft ice wines, including two red ice wines produced by Lemon Creek Winery and Domaine Berrien Cellars in southwest Michigan.

The passion behind farming this 105-acre estate is evident in the way Eaker speaks of his land. “Living here is like being a country squire. You have to have your own garden,” Eaker grins waving out to the vineyard. “The truth is that this is a lifestyle. What’s really important is living the possibility.”

Eaker loves the possibility of being a winemaker. This is his third life or so, following years as an art professor at the University of South Florida. He grew up in Carmel, California, attended University of California, Berkeley, in the 60’s, and was a marine during Vietnam. Eaker and his wife, renowned bronze sculptor Linda Ackley-Eaker, found their way to this Northern Michigan farm after agreeing to take “the long view” in their relationship years earlier when they first met at an art conference.

It’s fitting that Eaker is now a winemaker: handcrafting wine requires artistry, an attention to detail, flair, creativity and patience. Younger winemaker Walters, as mentor, shares these traits. If he had any spare time, Walters would pursue his passion for pottery alongside his wife as she paints oils on canvas. The 30-year age difference between Eaker and Walters is not noticeable in the rapport between the winemakers, who met at a dinner and discovered their common interests. “We get along so well because we are artists—colorful, passionate,” Eaker says.

Over the course of the long morning and into early afternoon, we wait for the presser to complete its effort to squeezea drop or two of juice from each frozen grape of the first batch. When the wooden cask is finally opened and separatedfrom the grapes, I am amazed at the frozen cylinder. Innocently, I attempt to budge the block of ice, but it’s like hitting a brick wall. “It weighs 900 pounds,” Walters reminds me.

The winemakers try to chip away at it, but no luck. It takes a front loader to slice through the top third. The grapes are slid section by section into a wheelbarrow and then taken to a snowbank and unceremoniously dumped. “This would be great pig food,” Eaker says.

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