If you’re looking for something to complement your Alberta steak, how about an Alberta wine? That’s now possible thanks to en Santé Winery near Brosseau, Alberta’s only certified organic cottage winery and commercial producer of fruit wines.
Owned by the Chrapko family, the winery distributes its seven wines and mead under the “Forbidden Fruit” label through Alberta liquor stores, restaurants, and through farm gate sales. The owners hope to be able to sell their wines through farmers markets by this summer.
The wine is produced in batches, with about 10,000 litres produced annually. “Fruit wine is different from grape wine in that it’s often drunk as a very young wine,” says winery co-owner Xina Chrapko.
Managing an orchard is risky in Alberta because frost can hit any month of the year. However, Xina Chrapko points out that her father’s business model proves that it can be a viable, value-added endeavour even in Alberta’s sometimes harsh climate.
Marketing is a major focus at en Santé Winery, evidenced by its catchy brand and product names. While all wines around the world are produced from fruit, non-grape varieties have their own distinctive qualities and appeal to their own demographic. Co-owner Shane Chrapko says they’ve stayed away from trying to convert grape wine drinkers to fruit wines. Instead, they’ve focussed on finding who specifically enjoys fruit wine on its own merit, noting what demographic they represent, and then focussing en Santé Winery’s product development and marketing in that direction.
Part of that focus is on finer restaurants and hotels. The winery achieved a major coup recently when the world famous Banff Springs Hotel agreed to feature five of its wines at their functions. However, it was a bittersweet achievement, as founder Victor Chrapko did not live to witness it. He was killed in a traffic accident in February, 2008. It stunned the family and the local community as Victor was very well known and admired, and no real succession plan was in place. Family members characterized him as a “young 65” with no intentions of slowing down.
“It wasn’t long before my dad passed on that he mentioned how he now was ready to get out there and really start marketing his wines, like getting in front of restaurants and hotels because he felt he had enough of an inventory,” says Shane. “To have a restaurant of that calibre using our wines, it’s encouraging. Kudos to my dad’s vision.”
Given the sudden passing of their father, the past year has been spent circling the wagons and plotting a strategy for the future. Luckily, family members were actively involved in producing the fruit wine and Victor kept good records. The family was able to tap into his existing inventory to fill orders and has managed to maintain about 90 per cent of full production over the past year. The business is now owned and managed by Victor’s wife Elizabeth and their children, Shane, Xina, Evan and Tonia. They decided early on that they would continue to operate the winery.
“Dad was very meticulous about keeping track of the recipes and the different experimentation that he had conducted,” says Shane. “So as far as having background or information to go to, it’s all there.”
He is confident that the family is entirely capable of building on what his father began. “The creation of a winery is measured in generations,” he says. “It’s not something that you do overnight and have it all figured out. Having a good product takes generations.”
Victor Chrapko was completely committed to organic farming, serving as president of the Alberta Organic Producers Association.
The Chrapko’s 2,000 acres of cropland was certified organic in 1999, which includes an eight-acre orchard. About 6.5 acres are planted with apple varieties and 1.5 acres in mixed fruits, which include rhubarb, pears, strawberries, cherries, plums, saskatoons, raspberries, wild cherries, and orange berries. The farm also produces its own honey to manufacture mead.
No chemicals have been used on the orchard property since 1964. One reason why en Santé Winery has successfully achieved organic status is because of its isolation. Because there are no orchards surrounding it, the Chrapko orchard is less susceptible to insects and diseases, so pest and disease management is easier.
Victor Chrapko was also instrumental in convincing provincial authorities to change regulations to allow commercial cottage wineries in the province, and in 2005, en Santé Winery was the first applicant to become a licensed cottage winery in Alberta.
The wine brands reveal their sources. For example, there is Adam’s Apple, Saucy Saskatoon, Raspberry Delight, Raspberry Passion, and Calypso Rhubarb. Two other brands include Campfire, made from organic wild cherries, and Green Envy, made from organic alfalfa. “Green Envy is the only organic or non-organic alfalfa wine that we know of in the world,” says Xina Chrapko.
Commercialization of an alfalfa-based wine is a testament to the amount of experimentation that Victor Chrapko conducted. Another example is the Adam’s Apple brand, which consists of up to 15 different apple varieties. Over almost two decades, he pared his commercial list down to seven wine brands from about 35 different experimental combinations, based on tastings by friends and family. Then he focussed commercial production on those brands.
Because Forbidden Fruit wine is produced in small batches, it doesn’t require full-time attention. Once harvested, the fruit ferments in 1,000-litre vats for anywhere from two to six months. Very fine wire-mesh screens and in some cases, paper filters are used to purify and clarify the fermented liquid, and also results in the need for minimal use of preservatives. Only a minimal amount of potassium sorbate is added. The winery can also produce sorbate-free wine upon request.
Most of the wine brands are available in either 375 ml or 750 ml bottles and range in price from about $9.50 to $28 per bottle.