It didn’t get warmer than 11 degrees Tuesday in the Lake Ontario hamlet of Burt.
With the wind chill, it felt like it was minus 15 – the sort of bone-chilling, eyeball-numbing cold that sends even the hardiest of us scrambling for thermal underwear.
And it was a perfect day for picking grapes for ice wine.
The conditions were just right Tuesday morning for grape growers Ann and Martin Schulze and their closest – and toughest – relatives, friends and fans to take part in the annual winter harvest.
“I’m happy today,” Martin Schulze said.
He’d been racked with anxiety the previous night, barely able sleep as he kept checking the weather reports to make sure it would stay cold enough for picking the frozen grapes for that sweet dessert liquid known as ice wine.
The grapes are finicky to begin with, and can only be grown properly in a few places in the world, like Western New York and Germany, where ice wine was invented. It requires just the right balance of dry, hot summers and very cold winters, the Schulzes explained.
The grapes ripen over the summer but are left on the vine all fall. As they dehydrate, the sugars of the grapes concentrate. When the temperatures dive into the subfreezing zone, what little water left in the grapes freezes.
“The sugar solids have a lower freezing temperature,” Ann Schulze said.
That’s when they need to be harvested and pressed.
“Like marbles,” Martin Schulze said as he showed off a giant container of shriveled, rock-hard purple grapes.
The grapes thrived this past summer. While other produce across Western New York, from apples to corn, struggled in the dry heat, grapes, including the three varieties of ice-wine grapes the Schulzes planted, flourished.
“The grapes were just optimal,” Ann Schulze said.
Now, all they needed was very cold weather – right around 12 degrees.
The news came about a week ago that temperatures were on their way down, and the Schulzes got the word out that they needed their volunteers to come help them.
At about 7 a.m. Tuesday, as light winds blasted tiny snow flakes in the air, about a dozen of the Schulzes’ friends and supporters joined them to gather fruit from three 800-foot-long rows interspersed through the vineyards.
James Tee, one of the volunteers, said there was no denying the cold when they headed out to the vines. But as the crew got to work, hitting the vines and shaking the grapes loose into the netting around the plants, it wasn’t as noticeable.
“You get some heat built up pretty quickly,” said Tee, who works in the tasting room of another local ice-wine maker, Leonard Oakes.
Tee said it’s not uncommon for the small but growing number of wineries in Niagara County to help each other out. A member of the Oakes family is the Schulzes’ winemaker, for instance.
It was that same spirit of kinsmanship that brought Bruce Gammack and Ken Urtel out in the cold to help with the harvest.
“We all believe there’s a great future for wine culture in Western New York,” said Gammack, who is friends with the Schulzes and a fan of their wines. “If it doesn’t receive support from people like us, it’s not going to get going.”
Urtel said it’s fun, too, and no big deal to be out in the cold for a couple of hours.
The bowls of hot chili and glasses of ice wine served to the volunteers after the morning harvesting helped warm them up, too.
But that was just part one of what needed to be done Tuesday.
Martin Schulze explained that the grapes that were plucked needed to be pressed. The grapes need to stay frozen for the process – and that was not going be a problem with Tuesday’s cold weather.
Schulze operated a giant John Deere tractor, lifting a crate of the freshly picked grapes and maneuvering it over to the wine-making building. From there, he used a smaller forklift to dump the fruit into a large, cylindrical machine. Inside the machine a large air bag slowly and gently expanded, squeezing out the syrupy amber nectar from the grapes.
Schulze scooped up the juice as it rained down into a steel catch basin and poured the liquid into a long tube, lowering a device that measures the sugar content.
“Thirty-one” he said. Not quite high enough, he explained, but he expected higher levels as the pressing went along.
A few minutes later, he tried again. “Thirty-six,” he said.
Schulze and his wife’s sons stopped the machine and opened it up. The grapes, still frozen, had grouped together. They used oarlike sticks to push the grapes back down so they could be re-pressed.
The machine was started back up again, and more syrup began to trickle down.
Schulze gathered up more of the syrup. It looked clearer now, more golden.
“Forty-four!” he yelled smiling. “No, 43.”
But that would do just fine, just the right amount of sugar for good ice wine.
The rest of the grapes would be pressed Tuesday afternoon and then allowed to settle overnight. Then the fermenting process would begin.
Martin Schulze broke out a bottle of his winery’s sparkling white wine, poured a drop of the freshly pressed nectar into it and toasted: “To the ice-wine harvest.”