Braving bitter cold to make the winter wonder of ice wine

Process is tricky, but frozen grapes make a lovely drink

January 15, 2003|By Diane Stoneback | Diane Stoneback,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ice wine, made from frozen-on-the-vine grapes, is part magic, part miracle

At 4 a.m. the wintry landscapes my daughter and I pass along the roadside could have come from a box of Christmas cards decorated with shiny gold and silver foil.

We are on our way to pick frozen grapes before sunrise in a snow-covered vineyard on the outskirts of Andreas, Pa., a village near Allentown, Pa. After the grapes are picked, we'll watch as these still-frozen pearls are pressed - the first stage in turning them into rare and highly coveted ice wine.

Ice wine, smooth and sweet enough to be dessert rather than merely accompany it, was created by accident in Germany in 1794 when the grape crop froze prematurely. It's still made there, as well as in Austria, Canada and parts of the Pacific Northwest. But making it in the Lehigh Valley is rare and about as risky as walking on thin ice.

There's the gamble of keeping the ripened grapes on the vine long after the regular harvest and the task of protecting them from insects, birds and deer.

Weather's the other big concern, because there have to be at least three straight days of temperatures below 17.6 degrees before the grapes can be picked.

There's the task of finding a crew of volunteers crazy enough to pick grapes in bitter cold and darkness before the sun's rays can cause even the slightest thaw, and the worry about whether the press, filled with frozen grapes, will freeze up before all the "must" can be squeezed from the treasure it holds.

I marvel that Sarah and Galen Troxell, owners of the Galen Glen Winery, have come this close to making ice wine. But before I become too lost in the beauty of the night and revelry about the rare opportunity I'm about to have, my 15-year-old pours out a sip of reality. "I can't believe we've gotten up in the middle of the night to pick shriveled old grapes," she mutters.

Not long before we reach Winter Mountain Road, the car's temperature gauge reads 1 degree below zero and even I wonder about the wisdom of this expedition. But we're about to learn firsthand why this version of liquid gold is sold in half bottles at prices double, triple or even more than the cost of full bottles of ordinary wine.

We arrive at the Troxells' home and join a dozen volunteers who are so bundled in coats, scarves and masks that they look more like bank robbers than grape pickers. A tractor picks us up and hauls us to the vineyard, stopping beside a single row of vines that disappears into the darkness. The crew fans out like crack commandos on a mission.

The workers swiftly loosen the ropes and lift the protective netting shrouding the vines so they can snip away at the grape stems with shears or just break off the brittle stems with their hands. Grapes drop into waiting bins and are loaded onto the tractor.

Because these grapes are so few in number (about 1,500 pounds) and will produce such a small amount of wine (50 gallons or about one-third of the juice that normally comes from this amount of grapes), each grape is precious. Drop even one, two or three and you're expected to find and retrieve them by sorting through handfuls of snow.

I keep wiggling my toes and tell my daughter to do the same. We wonder, together, about frostbite, the length of the row still to be picked and talk half-seriously about "mugging" volunteers for their toe warmers.

In an hour's time and just as our toes are almost completely numb, we reach the end of the row. On the wagon ride back, the crew talks about our good fortune - that the air was perfectly still in the normally windy vineyard.

The crew unloads the wagon and pours an estimated 1,500 pounds of frozen grapes into the press, which rumbles quietly and finally begins sending out a trickle of icy juice.

It'll take several hours to finish pressing the grapes, so I figure I've seen enough. After all, my mind is drifting far enough to wonder what wine goes with breakfast, and my teen-ager finally has begun smiling because she has discovered that the car's heater goes all the way to a cozy 95 degrees.

Diane Stoneback writes for the Allentown Morning Call, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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