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Alberta’s en Santé Winery wins against Mother Nature

wins against Mother Nature

January 5, 2009  By Tony Kryzanowski


Managing an orchard and winemaking is a risky endeavour in Alberta
because frost can hit any month of the year.

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En Santé Winery founder, Victor Chrapko, picks chokecherries from his eight-acre orchard. Victor died in a traffic accident in February 2008. Now his wife and children have taken over the Alberta cottage fruit winery. Photos by Xina Chrapko


 

Managing an orchard and winemaking is a risky endeavour in Alberta because frost can hit any month of the year. However, that didn’t stop Victor Chrapko from establishing en Santé Winery, Alberta’s only certified organic cottage winery and commercial producer of fruit wines.

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Located near Brosseau, Alta., the winery distributes its seven commercial wine products and mead through Alberta liquor stores, restaurants, and farm gate sales. They hope to have the ability to sell their wines through Farmer’s Markets by this summer.

Owned and operated by the Chrapko family, 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. She points out that her father’s business model proves that establishing a cottage fruit winery can be a viable, value-added agriculture endeavour, even in Alberta’s sometimes harsh climate.

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En Santé Winery, located near Brosseau, Alta., is the only licensed commercial cottage fruit winery in the province.


 

Marketing is a major focus at en Santé Winery. While all wines around the world are produced from fruit, non-grape varieties have their own distinctive qualities and appeal to their own demographic. Company co-owner Shane Chrapko says from a marketing perspective, they’ve stayed away from trying to convert grape wine drinkers to fruit wines. Instead, they’ve focused on finding out who specifically enjoys fruit wine on its own merit, noting what demographic they represent, and then focusing en Santé Winery’s product development and marketing in that direction.

Part of the winery’s marketing 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 its functions. The hotel can seat up to 700 people for dinner and attracts people from around the world. However, it was a bittersweet achievement, as the winery’s 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,” says Shane Chrapko, “because he felt he had enough of an inventory. 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 at en Santé Winery has been spent circling the wagons somewhat and plotting a strategy for the business’ 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 experimentations 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. He was 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 with mixed fruits, which include rhubarb, pears, strawberries, cherries, plums, saskatoons, raspberries, wild cherries, and orange berries. The farm 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, Victor pared his commercial list down to seven wine brands from about 35 different experimental combinations, based on tastings he conducted with friends and family. Then he focused commercial production on those brands.

Because en Santé 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 their use 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.

The company employs a semi-automatic bottler that can handle six bottles at a time and an automatic labeller. Cleanliness is extremely important, as no one is allowed in the production facility during the bottling process.

Most of the wine brands are available in either 375-millilitre or 750-millilitre bottles and range in price from about $9.50 to $28 per bottle. ❦


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