Every harvest is like a high stakes round of Blackjack at the Bellagio.
Making a traditional ice wine is a risky endeavor, which is why very few winemakers attempt such an arduous task. A legendary ice wine must first begin with legendary grapes grown in regions with freezing cold winters (the one any only time our winemaker rejoices in theses North Country winters!) While most grapes are harvested at the end of summer, grapes for ice wines are left to age on the vines well past their usual "prime" and aren't touched until temperatures dip below freezing. This means that plump, juicy grapes that could have been harvested and turned into wine are seemingly abandoned and left to the elements where they begin to shrivel up like raisins and are at risk of being devoured by hungry birds and deer. These grapes aren't just in jeopardy of being eaten by animals; unexpectedly warm temperatures can cause the grapes to rot or harsh winds may knock grapes off the vine, potentially wiping out an entire crop. Is this risk really worth it? Why would some winemakers choose to pass over harvesting an outstanding crop in September in exchange for a potentially disastrous harvest in January? For winemakers like Phil Randazzo, half of the fun is in the gamble. "All farmers are gamblers. We are all up against Mother Nature, the meanest Blackjack dealer around. It might sound crazy to some that we'd stake our livelihood against such precarious odds year after year, but here we are, doing it," comments Phil. Winemakers are gambling against even worse odds, "not only are we praying for a good harvest, but we also have to hope the winemaking process itself goes well. Otherwise, we'll be selling vinegar."
Phil has been hedging his bet by starting off with exceptionally resilient grapes. The grapes grown at Coyote Moon Vineyards are known as Northern Climate Grapes which were developed by the University of Minnesota. These grapes, which include Marquette, La Crescent, Brianna, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, and Frontenac Blanc, are known for their ability to thrive in temperamental climates such as Northern New York. The Northern Climate varieties are relatively new in the winemaking world, which means endless opportunity for adventurous winemakers. "We are continuously pushing the limit, eager to realize the full potential of these outstanding grapes we grow," comments Phil. "Just because something is risky doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. Extraordinary discoveries usually require extraordinary risks."
The most recent discovery made at Coyote Moon is that the Frontenac grape can make a truly phenomenal ice wine. Last January, a small portion of the vineyard was harvested for Coyote Moon's first ice wine. Only a few rows of grapes were reserved for this "trial run" while the winemakers experimented with making an ice wine for the first time. "I wouldn't say we didn't know what we were doing," comments Phil, "but I will say some of the best discoveries are made by accident. Trial and error is a very real part of the winemaking process sometimes, especially when creating a new wine." The result of last year's experiment is a limited, first edition ice wine that the staff is in love with and is eager to release to the public within the next few months.
Realizing that the ice wine "trial run" was a success, Phil double downed and reserved a much larger section of the vineyard for this year's ice wine harvest. The cost of that bet has been nervous anticipation by the entire Coyote Moon staff.
Ever since the main harvest at the vineyard wrapped up in September, winemaker Dave Countryman has been anxiously monitoring the Frontenac grapes reserved for ice wine. He has religiously been checking and double checking the weather forecasts, trying to predict when the grapes could be harvested. Temperatures have been momentarily dipping below freezing since before Christmas, but harvesting requires sustained sub-freezing temperatures to be successful. While patiently waiting for temperatures to drop, Dave watched as a high wind storm attacked the vineyard, knocking a portion of the crop to the ground before it could be harvested. Anxious that more harsh weather could wipe out all the remaining grapes, Dave made sure the rest of the staff was ready to harvest at a moment's notice: the minute temperatures dropped, he wanted to be out picking grapes. Luckily, temperatures began dropping quickly and weather forecasters were predicting Sunday, January 8th would be cold enough for harvesting. With just one day's warning, Dave informed the staff that ice wine harvesting would finally commence and an email invitation was sent out to all of Coyote Moon's fans, inviting them to join in the harvest. Early Sunday morning, a small team of Coyote Moon employees and a handful of brave volunteers met at the vineyard to harvest in freezing cold temperatures. Sipping hot coffee and bundled up in five or more layers of clothes to battle the -5˚F temperatures, the harvesting team was thankful that at least it wasn't snowing. The small team of employees and volunteers worked quickly and efficiently, harvesting the entire vineyard in a few short hours. Once the harvesting was finished, everyone relaxed and celebrated with more hot coffee and bowlfuls of homemade chili.
The day's work wasn't finished for the winemakers. Soon after the grapes were harvested, Dave began processing the grapes, starting with six hours in the grape press, where every last drop of concentrated, sweet, delicious juice was extracted. "This is the best juice we've had all year," comments Dave. "The great thing about an ice wine harvest is that only the very best fruit remains. Mother Nature has a way of eliminating any bad grapes in the vineyard." Only the best, most resilient grapes survive the harsh weather, yielding the most exquisite juice possible. That juice is now well on its way to becoming Coyote Moon's next vintage of deliciously sweet ice wine as it ferments and ages at the winery.
Phil and Dave are pleased with the hand they've been dealt these past two years. "Our risks seem to have been worth it," comments Phil. "We've gotten two great crops and have already produced our first exceptional ice wine. I guess the real test will be to see how it sells."
Coyote Moon's 2016 ice wine is expected to be released within the next few months. News of the upcoming release has already leaked and the phone is ringing off the hook as customers are calling to get on the waiting list for a bottle. Coyote Moon's ice wine is already on its way to making a legendary name for itself. Make sure you hurry and grab a bottle for yourself once the wine is available; odds are it's going to be a winner.