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Ice wine harvest started early this year

Lead cellar hand Pat O'Brien holds his first bunch of ice wine grapes at Bench 1775. The out-of-season cold weather meant ice wine vineyard owners could start picking their fruit much earlier than before.
November 21, 2013 - 10:07 AM

ICE WINE PRODUCTION NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART

PENTICTON - Ice wine grape picking might have stopped at about 7 a.m. this morning at the 1775 Bench winery but that didn't mean a break for the tired and frozen staff.

The grapes were picked and hauled directly to the processing rooms to be pressed for every precious sweet drop of juice. General manager of 1775 Bench, Val Tait, said once all the ice wine fields are harvested they expect to squeeze out more than 25,000 or so bottles of their award-winning Paradise Ranch and Whistler ice wines.

While everyone is happy ice wine season came early this year it's conflicting with 1775 Bench's table wine production which cannot stop. Ice wine harvesting seems to be a stressful business whether it comes early or late in the year.

Every dollar paid for a bottle of expensive ice wine represents a handful of hair a vineyard owner yanks out of his or her scalp. Harvesting is extremely dependent on weather conditions. A vineyard owner has to wait until it's at least -8 Celsius, then pickers might have a day, maybe two, to grab the frozen grapes and get them ready for processing.

Bench 1775 owner Jim Stewart said it's not easy. He was asked if ice wine production was as stressful as it appeared.

"It's awful," he said. "The crop is at great risk during the waiting period."

Until the temperature hits that magic number, the grapes are off-limits and the cycle of waiting can be excruciating — especially when hungry animals come sniffing for food.

Pickers are in conflict with birds, bears and deer who aren't as discerning about whether the grapes have reached their peak picking point and can eat thousands of dollars of profit before mother nature decides to cooperate.

As time goes on the grapes also become more dehydrated as the vines are not drawing water. Stewart said his grapes weren't picked until mid-January last year which resulted in a small crop.

He said he continues producing ice wine because Canada produces the best.

"It's a just a niche we found ourselves in. We can make the best ice wine in the world."

It's also an odd team-building experience Stewart never misses. He has an office in Vancouver but comes back to the Okanagan for the harvest. He might be joined by friends who've promised to lend a hand even if it means showing up at 3 a.m.

"It's really fun for about 15 minutes," he said, after which the friends can be found inside someplace warm drinking hot toddies.

"It's a bit of an adventure," Tait echoed. "It's actually a fun thing to experience once."

To contact a reporter for this story, to send photos or videos, email Shannon Quesnel at squesnel@infotelnews.ca, call 250-488-3065, send tweets to @shannonquesnel1 or @InfoNewsPentict.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2013
InfoTel News Ltd

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