Continuing a lifetime of innovation, Alberta couple pioneers organic fruit wine enterprise

February 21, 2007

Ten years or so ago, Victor and Elizabeth Chrapko were looking forward to a comfortable retirement. After decades of growing organic crops and raising hogs, the Brosseau, Alta. couple wanted to try something different on their 1,500 acres.

 

"We chose something that was close to our hearts during the years when we didn't have time to pursue it," says Victor Chrapko. "For us, that was growing fruit trees."

 

In the spring of 1997, the Chrapkos planted 17 different varieties of apple trees, along with a few plum and pear trees. The following summer, they kicked it up a notch, planting 1,500 trees of 65 different apple varieties. Their vision was to spend their retirement years contentedly caring for their orchard, perhaps running a u-pick business. To learn more about the apple-growing business, the Chrapkos became agronomic cooperators with the University of Saskatchewan's horticultural program.

 

When you plant hundreds of fruit trees, eventually you're going to have an awful lot of fruit. The Chrapkos saw one major problem with the u-pick idea: leftovers. Fruit can be stored, but building a warehouse is expensive. Then came their big idea: why not make wine with it?

 

Overcoming regulatory hurdles, climatic headaches.

 

While the Chrapkos saw wine as a natural valueadded venture for agriculture, Alberta's regulatory system for alcoholic beverages wasn't quite ready for them. It took some doing, but with the help of their local MLA, they successfully lobbied the provincial government for changes that would allow their cottage winery to proceed. By 2005, the Chrapkos were Alberta's first applicant to become a licensed cottage winery. 

 

Heading into spring 2005, everything appeared set for a big year for the Chrapko's newly established en Sante Winery. The devastating late-May &ost of that year, however, ensured there'd be very little fruit available for wine-making.

 

In 2006, however, luck was on their side. En Sante Winery produced its first vintage and by the end of the summer, the Chrapko's inventory stood at 7,000 lilres of made- in-Alberta ftuit wine in six different varieties.

 

Most of the product is marketed at the farm gate and promoted mainly through word of mouth. En Sante Winery has also applied for distribution with ALCE.

 

Lessons learned.

 

Over the past 40 years, the Chrapkos have been involved in a wide variety of business ventures. They consider their hard-won, real-world business experience a vital asset to the success of en Sante Winery. Still, the Chrapkos caution that farm gate business isn't for everyone.

 

"If you're going to do value-added uom the farm gate, recognize you're going to have to put a lot of time into it that you don't get paid for," Victor says. "People will visit the farm, enjoy the visit but maybe walk away without buying anything. You don't necessarily work 9-to-5. You have to be prepared whenever people show up."

 

When visitors arrive at the fann, the Chrapkos make every effort to show them a good time. They walk visitors through the orchard, allow them to sample fruit off the trees, serve coffee and pie and finally invite guests to taste some wine. The en Sante Winery tour takes more than two hours to complete. Still, anyone who tries the Chrapko's wine is likely to become a loyal customer for years to come.

 

"You can talk all you want, but unless a person can see, touch and taste the product, it's worth nothing," says the Chrapkos. All the same, for 2007, they'll try to attract more tour buses and do fewer smallgroup tours. Other plans for this year include development of a web site (www.ensantewinery.com). complete with a virtual tour of the winery, online merchandising and web-based product ordering.

 

Ten years ago, the Chrapkos were thinking of slowing down a bit. Today, they're busier than ever. As owners of Alberta's first licensed organic cottage winery, these innovative producers look forward to making the province as well-known for wine as it is for beef. Cheers!

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