Yesterday, with Winter Storm Jove pressing down on Western New York with below-zero temperatures on top of up to 25 inches of snow, was the day they decided to pick the grapes for ice wine at Johnson Estate Winery.
I'll never forget the time I froze my grapes up along Lake Erie to help with the harvest for a story for the Post-Gazette. It was 12-below and dark when photographer Rebecca Droke and I crunched over the frozen tundra of the vineyards. It was a heck of a lot of fun.
They had fun yesterday, too, in what some call the “ice wine triangle,” the roughly 70-mile area near Buffalo where geography and the moderate air off the lakes make conditions right for this specialty wine, for which the grapes are left on the vine until they freeze. This effectively concentrates the sugars.
Johnson Estate's Jennifer Johnson says that a "hardy crew" of 20 picked the frosty marbles there from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. yesterday "with a hot chocolate break in the middle along with the distribution of hand warmers." Afterwards, they warmed up in a warehouse with a black-bean chili and cornbread lunch.
The tons of grapes they picked will be turned into three ice wines: traditional white made from Vidal grapes; a rarer red ice wine from Chambourcin grapes; and the winery's new blend of the two grapes as rarer-still sparkling rose ice wine.
The last one, which the winery describes as the first sparkling ice wine to be made in the U.S., they sell in 375-ml bottles. This year's pickings should be ready to drink by summer.
Meanwhile, ice wines from Johnson and other wineries in the region, including Northeast Pennsylvania, are available at the wineries themselves and at some Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board stores, as well as some restaurants.
It's not cheap: Johson sells its white and red for $34.99 each (or in a wooden box for $5 more). The sparkling rose, in the black box, is $49.99.
Especially if you've never tried this sweet stuff, you should, and get a taste of one of the few regional food products from hereabouts to get harvested this frigid time of year.
I've got a bottle of ice wine from Pelee Island, Ontario, that a friend gave me squirreled away in my basement that I think I'll crack open tonight ... to drink a toast to those brave -- and lucky souls -- who got to help with the harvest.
Johnson Estate photos