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The Pick: Late-Night Ice Wine Grapes in British Columbia

High on Adventure, October 2005

by Lynn Rosen and Steve Giordano

Photos by Steve Giordano

Picking grapes at 1 in the morning.

You might wonder why anybody would WANT to volunteer to pick grapes all night in the freezing cold. Good question. We saw it as an adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to just go for it and do something completely different. It was like we had a "backstage pass" to a very special event in the wine world. We've certainly toured enough wineries to last a lifetime, but this was a chance to participate in the harvest for quite an unusual wine. Besides, it was actually fun trying to learn a new skill under adverse conditions, and getting to know some local people at a very popular tourism destination.

It might smack of cultural tourism, or get-with-the-locals tourism, or wine snob tourism (I prefer beer, myself..). It was a new tourism trend in 2005, where travelers get behind the scenes and feel special for having done it. But basically it was fun, and I'll have to explain why. Like Steve Allen said: We do a thousand things a day and make a thousand little decisions, and we usually don't think about why until someone asks, and then we make up a reason. . .

Here's a couple of nice bunches for the sled.

It was Friday. Late afternoon. One of those TGIFridays following a week of putting out one bonfire on the desk after another, one crisis piled atop one emergency after another. You know that kind of week.

We'd been alerted regarding our "on call" status for a spur-of-the-moment call to travel north to Canada once the temperature plunged below -8 to -10 degrees Celsius (19 to 14 Fahrenheit) in Kelowna, British Columbia. That's when they have to pick the icewine grapes. Approximately 30 pounds of grapes are required to yield one bottle of icewine, compared to 3 pounds of grapes for a traditional bottle.


The grapes are not frozen solid. They're still squishy, so wear waterproof gloves.


But since we'd had no further phone calls in two weeks and no indication the mercury was dropping, we were settling in for an easy weekend off. Just back from a grueling run, around 4:30 pm, exhausted and dripping wet, we came through the door to grab the ringing phone. The call to pick had come. "Be on a plane in a few hours because the temperature is dropping and they're picking tonight." The airport is a two-hour drive. Time to rush.

Some background on Icewine: It's first of all a huge gamble. But the rewards are rich, like any good bet that you win. The positive results are remarkably smooth, rich and sweet but not cloying. The preparations are none of the above.

She must be visualizing the end product...

Originally developed, quite by mistake, in the cool wine regions of Germany in the mid-1700s, icewine is ideally suited to the Okanagan Valley's climate.

Grapes are left on the vine after the summer/fall harvest in hopes that the temperature will drop and freeze the fruit. Freezing concentrates the sugars and acids which intensify the flavors and contribute to the complex, clean sweetness of this rare wine.

Genuine icewine must follow Canadian VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) regulations that prohibit any artificial freezing of grapes. Thus, the spur-of-the-moment-calls in the night for pickers.

Quail's Gate Winery in Kelowna, and all of the Okanagan Valley, had a hot summer and fall, which bodes well for an award-winning season of wines. But with an early freeze, the icewine harvest also promised to produce a fabulous product.

The sled is filling up - about time to unload.

This very special wine begins with harvesting the frozen grapes in the freezing cold middle-of-the-night. They are painstakingly hand-picked, lugged to huge bins, dumped in, fork-lifted to the nearby winery and pressed immediately.

The sugar content of the grapes is measured by the vintner. A high "brick" count is considered stellar. Our hard-won grapes measured 46 bricks which is remarkable in the icewine world. The sweet concentrated juice, which was deliciously clean and sweet as it came out of the press, is fermented very slowly for several months.

The finished icewine is rich and sweet but not cloying because of the acidic balance. The result is clean and pleasing, reminiscent of nuts and fruits, well worth its high price in its distinctive small, narrow, tall bottles.


A full sled is dumped into the bin that a forklift will carry to the crusher.


People who really want to partake in this experience should contact Kelowna-area wineries and inquire about the "top of the picking list." Even some people in Japan are on a "call" list and ready to get on a plane with a 24-hour notice to experience the "middle-of-the-night cold grape pick." Here, in North America, you have to be prepared to be in Kelowna within about 12 hours of an initial call. Perhaps you're planning a ski trip already, and want to add ice wine picking as an option while you're in town. Silver Star Mountain Resort and Big White Ski Resort are each about an hour's drive from Kelowna.

The crusher, outside for ambient temperature.
The night's proceeds.

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