Volunteers brave cold to pick grapes at Indiana vineyard

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Before sunrise on a cold morning earlier this month, about 30 people bundled up, leaving the comfort of warm beds and homes, to help harvest a little over 2 acres of partially frozen grapes hanging in the Creekbend Vineyards on Woodall Road north of Ellettsville.

As a ribbon of sun rose just above the eastern horizon, Bernie Parker, vineyard manager for Oliver Winery, instructed people in the proper way to collect the Vidal Blanc grapes hanging in rows 6 to 21.

As he stood at the beginning of a row, Parker used his mittened hand to grasp a cluster of grapes. “You lift up the bunch,” he said as he gently hoisted the grapes upward, snapping the vine holding the grapes. He then lowered the cluster into a plastic bin, called a lug, where the grapes are collected just above the snow-covered ground. Each lug holds 20-30 pounds of grapes.

Nearby, other workers, bundled in warm clothes, were quietly talking as they worked their way down a row, picking grapes from the vine and also from the netting below that caught the sweet fruit that had fallen from the vines.

It was the first year that Don Adams of Bloomington had helped harvest grapes at the vineyard. His wife, Julie, who works at Oliver Winery, was also picking grapes. A few rows over, Adam Rodkey of Bloomington was picking grapes off the row next to his wife, Ellen Rodkey, who once worked for the winery.

“We’ve seen harvest taking place but never in the winter like this,” he said, adding that although he thought he’d be “miserable” he was warm and enjoying it. Rodkey said he was glad to be part of harvesting grapes for the only winery in Indiana that makes ice wine.

Harvesting grapes to make ice wine isn’t something Oliver Winery does every year, Parker explained, adding it’s something that’s done every three to six years, depending on the number of Vidal Blanc grapes that are available to create the special wine.

“Ice wine is one of the most remarkable wines and will last forever,” Parker said.

Ice wine is more like a brandy in that only a small amount is poured into a glass and then is sipped slowly, according to Bill Oliver Jr., CEO of Oliver Winery, who was out harvesting grapes alongside the others.

With temperatures near zero, the grapes were still not totally frozen due to the high sugar content. But each grape contained both ice crystals and a thick, concentrated juice that is the essence of ice wine, Oliver explained.

The frozen grapes have about 40 percent sugar content instead of the normal 20 percent. The early-morning workers were told they could taste a couple of the mauve-colored grapes — the outside was icy with a sweet burst of juice in the middle, surrounding the seed.

When the grapes are processed, instead of getting about 170 gallons per ton of grapes, which is the norm, they will only get 30-40 gallons per ton. But that liquid makes a complex ice wine that’s golden in color and has a relatively high alcohol content.

Although the fermentation process begins soon after the grapes are harvested, the wine won’t be bottled until sometime this summer, Oliver said.

Oliver said the winery made ice wine last year also, but didn’t make enough to last for more than a year. The hope is that this year’s harvest will produce enough to last for two years. He estimated the winery will make about 6,000 bottles of the wine.

“Last year, we made what we thought would be a two-year supply, but it sold better than expected,” he said. “So, we are going again this year.”

Ice wine is also made wineries in Ontario, Canada, and in the Niagara area of Canada and New York, Oliver said. Those ice wines are different from what’s created here in Indiana due to the differences in the climate.

Since Indiana has a longer growing season, Oliver said Hoosier ice wines are made from grapes that are on the vine longer, resulting in a more complex and mellow vintage.

The Vidal Blanc grapes at Oliver Winery are also used to make a sparkling wine and another dry blend wine, Oliver said.