Okanaganites flock to fields to take part in ice wine harvest

Dozens of Okanagan residents bundled up Thursday morning and headed to area vineyards for a long-awaited sub-zero harvest.

Local chef Darren Mitchell was among dozens of Okanagan residents who bundled up before dawn broke Thursday morning, and headed to area vineyards for a long-awaited sub-zero harvest.

“It’s a once in a year opportunity,” Mitchell said hours after leaving Tantalus winery’s ice wine harvest, gearing up for a full night of work at Bernard Avenue’s Rotten Grape.

“It’s only a couple hours. And in the summer I work on an organic farm so, for me, this kind of thing is 100 per cent my passion.”

While not everybody would find loading up baskets with frozen berries in the dead of night a thrill, those who have an active role in the community’s literal food chain have a different view.

“Knowing how your food is grown and how much work is put into it, you appreciate 10 times more than if you just get it at your back door,” Mitchell said..

This year, perhaps more than any previous, that kind of appreciation for the work put into a simple grape should be quite pronounced.

As Tantalus’s general manager Jane Hatch explained, there have been an abundance of challenges to this year’s growing season.

“We had a smaller crop this year because the shorter growing season, so we didn’t have the yield off the vines we had last year,” she said.

Then there was a troublesome spring, a hail storm in August and finally, the slow onset of sub-zero temperatures.

“The challenge with that is the longer the fruit stays out on the vine, the more chances there are for birds to get it,” she said, adding they do net their ice wine vines for a layer of protection.

“Also, the longer we wait, the fruit is more desiccated.”

Although an aging, shrivelled grape won’t impact the taste, it does limit its yield.

“It makes it more precious. Anytime you have a lower volume, you have less to sell to customers,” she said, noting that combination would present a bigger challenge to those who produce larger quantities.

That said, it’s a competitive business and pleasing the customer is what earns a winery credibility.

“This is where the true skill of the viticulturist and winemaker has to come to the forefront,” she said. “And, from a sale’s perspective, the economy isn’t so bad that nobody is selling wine. But the  relationship between the price of wine and quality and volume very important. You have to have your ducks lined up and sell a high quality product at a reasonable price.”

Tantalus wasn’t the only winery that called pickers to the fields for the precious liquid Thursday. Numerous wineries made the call, and for some it was the second time this season.

In November, Summerhill had harvesters in the vineyard, which Lindsay Kelm, of the B.C. Wine Institute, said it marked one of the earliest starts to the ice wine harvest in B.C., second only to the Nov. 5 harvest in 2003. They were waiting for temperatures to plunge again for a secondary harvest, and it came later than usual.

This year, 26 wineries have said they will be picking frozen grapes for an expected 875 tons, the most ever projected for ice wine in this province.

Kelowna Capital News