Profiles In Obsession: Mike Countryman


The first thing Mike Countryman told me about ice wine was that it was like trying to make wine from marbles. Ice wine is hard to make, hard to find, and expensive to buy. The reward for the intrepid seeker is a golden-hued liquid that brings forth the essence of the grape, which, when finally picked, looks like a plump brown raisin. The first sip has a layered sweetness from its extensive hang time on the vine, and an acidic mouthfeel from an equally high level of citric and tartaric acids.

The first ice wine (icewine in Canada or eiswein in Germany) is thought to have been made in Germany in the late 1700s, as a result of an early cold spell. Instead of throwing away the frozen grape crop, winemakers pressed the frozen grapes and fermented the juice. Back then Europe had more consistent frosts to develop their ice wines. (Now they’ve got global warming.) Most German producers use Riesling, but in the U.S. and Canada, Vidal Blanc grapes reign supreme: a hardy French varietal that produces high sugar levels in cold climates. Countryman’s early ice wines were all made with Vidal Blanc grapes.

Countryman grew up farming: first near Rochester, New York, on his family’s hundred-acre farm and later, while studying agriculture and microbiology in college, working at a four-thousand-acre cash-crop farm. His plans to go into environmental science seemed a sure thing until he met a man at a bar.

I met the founder of Casa Larga [a winery in the Finger Lakes], Andy Colaruotolo, at a charity dinner. I was up at the bar, probably getting a beer. I was twenty-two when I met him. When I first started we worked side by side. 

Countryman was interested in environmental science, and the opportunity to work in a vineyard fit both his farming background and his microbiology degree. He started in the vineyard five days a week, and the elder winemaker pulled him into the cellar on Saturdays and Sundays. Colaruotolo was Italian—“old school,” Countryman says. He learned winemaking 101 from Colaruotolo. By the end, they were making dozens of different wines, blending as well as varietals like Pallido, Tramonto, Gewürztraminer, rosé, and Riesling.

In 1993, myself and Andy and John [Andy’s son] were all in Canada. We tasted some ice wines up there. It was very small in Canada at that time. Of course, in Germany it was around for quite awhile, but in Canada it was new. No one was doing it in the Finger Lakes. It was the complexity of the wine, and it was so different from anything being made. It wasn’t a Sauternes, or a port. There were so few places in the world you could do it, but it was something we could do. We came back and said, “Let’s make some ice wines.” We left four rows of Vidal grapes—half an acre—on the vine. I had read about it in a book and I talked to a friend in Canada, Angelo Pavan at Cave Spring Cellars. Their ice wines are very good. It was a learning experience. We just let them hang. It was Christmas day—it was pretty cold. Andy and I worked every day, seven days a week, but that day we were off, and the next day we came back and the deer had eaten most of the grapes. We picked what was left and made fourteen gallons of ice wine. I didn’t bottle it. What am I going to do with five cases? Angelo up in Canada tells me we gotta net the vines. So 1995 was the first vintage we made. And I blended it back with the ’94, which I had stored in a glass carboy. In the first few years the wines always came out nice. We were new to the market and to competitions. We were winning hundreds of awards, but then we started getting more competition and we had to improve along with it. I could change the temperature I ferment at, or the yeasts I use, and when we harvest.

Originally published for Lucky Peach on March 11, 2015. Read the rest of the story here.