David Paterson, winemaker at Tantalus Vineyards in Kelowna, checks the quality of riesling grapes at 6 a.m. Saturday as eight pickers prepare to harvest the rock-hard marbles that will be turned into icewine during the next six months.
In spite of nets placed over two areas of grapes, birds got 50 to 60 per cent of the shiraz grapes and about one-third of the Riesling from a half-hectare vineyard in Kelowna, said general manager Jane Hatch.
Nets were unclipped at 5 a.m. Saturday as temperatures dropped to a frigid -11 C. Eight pickers started harvesting the rock-hard marbles at 6 a.m. while birds circled overhead and swooped down to scoop up any grapes rolling across the frozen ground.
Three-and-a-half hours later, the pitched battle was over and Hatch was loading 35-pound picking bins on a trailer to haul them to the press.
"Bird pressure is always an issue for everyone who produces icewine because they're hungry at this time of year and they're determined, even with nets, to get in there," said Hatch.
"We have a large pileated woodpecker here, one of the big guys with the red crest. He's a crazy little bird with a big attitude. He flies along beside us and gives us hell. 'How dare you pick my grapes?'" she said with a laugh.
"We see the flickers a lot, the real pretty ones that are not as small as a starling with a longer beak and a bit of an orange fleck under the wings. They're right here, almost over my head, on a branch. They are like: 'Get out of my vineyard.' It's funny; it's silly; they are all over here so we kind of enjoy that part of it."
Winemaker David Paterson expects to produce 60 cases of Riesling and significantly less of shiraz, thanks to the birds.
"I think we've done OK with the Riesling, The shiraz, though, they hammered us. We do our best. We net; we chase them away with the bird guns, the crackers. The shiraz is just so delicious so it must be delicious to them as well," said Hatch.
"We were thinking we might actually do the pick tomorrow (Sunday), but as we watched the temperatures go down last night, we shifted gears entirely, and at that point we needed to bring everyone in that we could get a hold of."
When everyone comes in at 6 a.m., they are a little bleary-eyed but there is also a sense of excitement and celebration, said Hatch, noting it only happens once a year.
"We were getting worried that we weren't going to get the temperatures (-8 C or colder). When you leave fruit out, it's a commitment. It's a high-value product and you want to be sure that you can get that fruit in," she said.
Plus, "this is the true windup to our year. Now we start booking our flights for the holidays, someplace warm and in the sun. So until this crop comes in, we can't do that, There are lots of reasons, both business-wise and personal, why it is a bit of a celebration."
Paterson expects to complete a long, slow fermentation process and bottle the icewine in April or May so bottles can be ready for sale next summer.