The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 3, 2013

Local wineries planning ice wine harvest

Star Beacon

— If the skies opened and the temperature plummeted overnight, as Tony Debevc hoped they would, the Madison Township winery owner had a sleepless night.

Debevc said on Wednesday afternoon that a crew of about 25 employees and volunteers would be ready at midnight Wednesday to bring in the ice wine harvest. The caveat is that the temperature had to drop to at least 17 degrees fairly early in the night and hold steady or lower before the harvest could begin.

The picking is done by hand and often by the light of flashlights and headlamps. With a full crew of 30 or so experienced pickers, the task can be completed in three to four hours.

Debevc set aside about three acres of vidal grapes for the ice wine harvest. The fruit was covered with netting to minimize loss to wildlife while the wine maker waited for temperatures low enough to form ice crystals in the fruit. Debevc said that in a normal harvest, that is 17 degrees, but this year’s growing season and resulting fruit have been far from normal.

Vidal’s sugar content usually comes in at 19 brix, but the fruit this year is at 22 to 23, indicating a higher sugar level. Debevc suspects the sweeter grapes will require a temperature lower than the typical 17 degrees to form the ice crystals. The berries are pressed while still frozen to release the super-sweet juice that is ice wine’s hallmark.

While area vineyards have harvested their ice wine grapes as early as December, most look to January for the event, which marks the end of the prior year’s harvest cycle. Debevc said they’ve picked as late as February. The harvest marks the end of the season and, for many vineyard owners, the beginning of vacation.

He says the quality of the product tends to improve the longer the berry is on the vine, although dehydration eventually becomes an issue. Debevc predicted the yield will be 500 to 600 gallons of juice if harvested today.

“We hope to get that out of it,” he said. “We’ve put in thousands of dollars of netting and our labor costs,” he said.

The sour economy has taken its toll on sales of the sweet dessert wine.

“It goes with the economy,” said Debevc of the product, which costs about six times what a typical bottle of locally produced wine costs. “It’s an expensive product, a luxury item, that people are more inclined to drink during the holidays.”

Gene Sigel, vineyard manager for Debevc’s Chalet Debonné Vineyards and owner of South River Vineyard, said that while some parts of Ohio got very cold on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, clouds rolled across Ashtabula County and the temperature stayed in the low 20s.

He said the 10-day forecast is for a warming trend, which means if the harvest did not happen this morning, the fruit will have more time to dehydrate and thereby reduce the volume. Debevc said the vineyard’s other option is to pick the fruit and make a late harvest wine.