“The Batches Vary… That’s The Art, And The Beauty Of It.”
Victor Chrapko’s legacy as pioneer in the organic movement in Alberta continues with his family’s successful venture in organic fruit winemaking. Victor was killed in February 2008 when a pickup truck slammed into his semi as he was delivering hay.
Chrapko was instrumental in creating legislation which allowed for cottage wineries in Alberta. En Santé Organic Winery, established on the Chrapko homestead, is the only organic fruit winery in Alberta and the first producer of honey wine in the province.
Victor’s parents, John and Eva Chrapko, immigrated to Canada from Ukraine and started a homestead near Brosseau in 1927. Victor and his wife Elizabeth took over the farm in 1974. Victor was always interested in a low-impact, environmental approach to the land.
Victor’s daughter Xina remembers being teased about the family’s summerfallow practices. “My grandfather and dad believed in being stewards of the land for future generations and that you should leave the world a better place than what you’ve found it,” she said. Her father was known as a pioneer in the organic movement, and was always up for a challenge. “Mom and Dad were innovators and were always looking for new ways of doing things,” she says.
By 1995, Victor had begun experimenting with different fruit cultivars and had started an orchard known as “Orchard Palace.” He tested various cultivars for the University of Saskatchewan horticultural outreach program and reported on how they grew in northern Alberta. Over time, over 15 different fruits were added to the orchard and each fruit contained numerous different varieties.
The family was also knowledgeable about indigenous plants that had always been on their land, and made good use of the wild berries. These plants are still used in their fruit wines.
“We use crabapples, saskatoons, and rhubarb that are synonymous with the Prairies,” says Xina. In addition to the indigenous fruits, the family now has plum trees, pear trees, currants, gooseberries and a number of large eating-apple trees that grow well in northern Alberta.
The family has always kept honey bees as pollinators to keep with organic farming’s broader philosophy of helping with the biodiversity of the environment. It was a natural step to make mead or honey wine from the delicate honey that was created from the bees’ use of the apple blossoms.
USING THE SURPLUS
The Chrapkos started a U-pick operation, but found they still had excess fruit in their orchard. So in 1997, Victor and Elizabeth began experimenting with different recipes to make wines using their supply of organic fruit. Xina says many recipes were tested over the years in the quest for the ideal one.
“There are some recipes that can be doubled to make large batches and some that can’t,” she said. “The recipes need to be able to work on a larger scale, rather than just for personal home use.”
Victor began examining the legislation needed to create an Alberta winery and eventually contacted Ray Danyluk, the MLA for the Lac La Biche region, to introduce legislation which would enable the production of valueadded products in the province.
“So many primary products go outside the province for processing,” says Xina. “The legislation would allow the creation of valueadded products to happen here, and create opportunities for students and people interested in working in these areas.”
The creation of the new legislation took from 2000-2005. During that time, the Chrapko family began organizing and planning to create the Organic Winery. By 2005, the Provincial Cottage Winery regulations were changed, allowing people to create organic fruit wines for sale in Alberta. The family came up with “en Santé” for the name of their winery. The name pays tribute to Lac Santé near Brosseau as well as to a French “toast” prior to sharing a drink or meal with friends. “This ties to the healthy food product, healthy environment and organics,” said Xina.
En Santé Organic winery currently has eight varieties of fruit wine for sale. The first batch was the Calypso Rhubarb. Other varieties include Campfire (wild cherry), Adam’s Apple, Kalyna Princess (high-bush cranberry), Saucy Saskatoon, and Raspberry Delight. The Chrapkos also offer a Mellow Gold Mead made from honey and a wine called “Green Envy,” created from organic alfalfa.
All products are organic and are sold through liquor stores and restaurants throughout the province. The wines dispel the myth that all non-grape wines are sweet, syrupy and heavy. The family has worked hard to keep their wines clean and crisp tasting which makes them good as a sipping wine or as a wine to pair with various foods.
In 2009, another one of Victor’s ideas came to be. Legislation was changed which allowed the Chrapko family to sell the wine at farmers’ markets.
Even though the products are selling throughout the province, the operation is still a family business and everything used in production is grown on the farm.
Xina says creating wine is both an art and science. The science part takes into consideration factors such as the amount of fruit involved. The art includes understanding how hot, dry conditions this year will affect the outcome of the final product and making the necessary adjustments. “The batches vary,” said Xina. “That’s the art, and the beauty of it.”
The first step to creating the perfect wine is to start with a high-quality fruit, which is then allowed to ferment. Then the wine has to age before it’s bottled.
“Being that the Alberta wine industry is still small, we have to be involved in so many aspects of the entire value chain right from the production of the primary products, the fruit, the alfalfa and the honey – all the way to the creation of the wine and the bottling, corking and labelling, right down to the marketing and promotion of the final bottled product,” says Xina.