July 12, 2007: British Columbia is not the
only organic wine-producing region in Canada. Alberta—better
known for its beef—is staking a claim in the marketplace
with organic fruit wines.
En Santé winery in Brosseau, a small district northeast
of the city of Edmonton, is Alberta’s only certified-organic
cottage winery and has been open for business for just over
a year. Owner-vintner Victor Chrapko, a long-time organic
pioneer, says he is extremely happy with the response.
En Santé (www.ensantewinery.com)
produces and markets seven types of wine representing the
best selection from the 29 wines in the Chrapko family’s
private cellar. The wines are marketed throughout Alberta
at government-licensed liquor stores, on the farm and by delivery,
but en Santé has requests from as far away as China,
Germany and the United States to attend wine and trade shows.
Its “Forbidden Fruit” label wines—including
rosés, reds and whites—are made from apples and
many other fruits raised on the farm.
The family has developed a unique line of ice wines, with
a twist on the usual approach. In traditional grape winemaking,
ice wine is made from grapes that are intentionally kept on
the vine until a frost. The icy grapes are picked early in
the morning before the sun melts the frost from their skins.
Frost sweetens the grapes, which ferment into a sweeter product
known as “ice wine", normally served as a dessert
The Chrapkos simulate nature’s frosts in a way which
gives them more control over timing. They usually harvest
the fruit for this wine before the first frost comes, freeze
it, and then process it at their convenience. They market
this wine under their “Passion” fruit wine label.
En Santé also makes mead, which is becoming very popular
in the handcrafted beverage market. Sharon Faye, special crops
analyst of Alberta Agriculture and Food in Edmonton, says
she expects there will soon be more handcrafted beverages
and meads on the market because of the general level of interest
shown by regional producers and consumers. The main fermentable
product of mead is honey; en Santé uses either raspberries
or apples to give it a fruity flavor.
The Chrapkos have been making wine for family use for 10
years, but eventually decided to go commercial for several
reasons. “Even with U-Pick, you have excess fruit,”
explains Victor Chrapko. “We asked, ‘What do you
do with the excess?’ We considered apple pies, but thought,
‘Why not wine?’”
The Chrapkos have an 8-acre orchard (6.5 acres in apples
and 1.5 acres in mixed fruits), operating primarily as a U-Pick
operation. Under cultivation are rhubarb, pears, strawberries
cherries, plums, saskatoons
(serviceberries), raspberries, wild cherries and sea
buckthorns )which are orange berries).
They also own 2,000 acres of cropland that produces alfalfa
hay for organic livestock in rotation with barley, oats and
wheat. The entire operation has been certified organic since
Victor Chrapko’s parents emigrated from the Ukraine
as children in the early 1900s and farmed the same area that
is now Victor’s orchard. One of five children, Victor
eventually met and married his wife Elizabeth. They have four
adult children, who help with the operation in various capacities,
and three grandchildren.
Swine to wine
From 1975 to 1997, the Chrapkos operated a 200-sow, farrow-to-finish
pork operation. (This story of family cooperation and skill-building
is worth a read. See www.ensantewinery.com/
history.php for more.) They terminated the pork operation
when Elizabeth was in a bad accident, and Victor said he had
to decide, “‘Do I look after hired men and pigs,
or do I look after my wife?’ That’s when I decided
we needed something smaller, something that would allow me
more time with Elizabeth, where I could be closer to the house.”
Victor and Elizabeth were also looking forward to being semi-retired.
They wanted to do something completely different as a hobby,
source of pleasure and revenue generator, on a smaller scale
and fitting within the regional climate.
Inspired by the University of Saskatchewan’s prairie-fruit-growing
program, and certainly not afraid of a challenge, they became
the first commercial apple orchard in northeast Alberta in
1995. Today they have 1,500 apple trees of 65 varieties.
“Some varieties of apples do well in our Zone 2 micro-environment,
and some have been eliminated as they are not as successful,”
explains Victor Chrapko. He cooperates with fruit specialists
Robert Bors, Ph.D., and Rick Sawatsky of the University of
Saskatchewan and has a dozen varieties now on trial.
Victor Chrapko is looking for varieties with large fruits
that will keep well in the root cellar. He selects rootstock
hardy enough to survive winter temperatures as low as -40°F,
then grafts them with equally hardy cultivars. He seeks apples
with a taste and texture people enjoy eating and that also
make good fruit wines. He has found what defines a “good
apple” varies from person to person but with the U-pick
operation people have the opportunity to taste the varieties
and select what they prefer—tart, sweet or somewhere
To ensure the orchard soil is healthy, Chrapko has it analyzed
every year. The light sandy loam soil had been crop-farmed
without chemicals since 1964. Throughout that time, he has
used green manures in crop rotations, particularly alfalfa,
as well as sweet and red clovers. Once the orchard was planted
and the trees were established, the soil health has remained
fairly consistent. He uses a tractor mower to control weeds
and a drip system to water the orchard. While neighbors help
on occasion, he does most of the pruning himself.
Challenged by wind, water and frost
Victor Chrapko’s two biggest challenges in managing
his orchards are wind conditions, such as “wind tunnels”
that form due to proximity to buildings and other trees, and
frost, which can occur at any month of the year in north eastern
Chrapko works with Ken Fry, Ph.D., an entomologist from Alberta’s
Olds College of Agriculture. Fry provides traps and checks
for bugs that might be there, but Chrapko reports that there
are no problems—just plenty of dragonflies. Thean Pheh,
a fruit technician from Alberta Agriculture and Food, provides
insight and answers on many varied and unusual problems from
his practical knowledge.
“One wet year we thought we had a mold or scab, but
it was only water damage. Too much moisture at the wrong time
can turn the skin grey, but those apples were still useable,”
says Chrapko. “Two years ago we had grasshoppers on
the fields, but not in the yard, because the chickens were
picking them up.” He finds that free-ranging chickens
and turkeys help prevent insect problems, the eating adults
and over-wintering larvae in soil. As the only orchard in
the area, the family’s trees are not subject to airborne
diseases or infestations that could migrate in.
The fruit crop is shared with U-pickers, with the Chrapkos
harvesting the balance for wine. The quantity of fruit made
into wine varies from year to year, changing with the weather-dependent
U-pick activity. “U-Pickers do not frequent orchards
on cold, wet summer days, so if it is a wet summer, 90 percent
of the harvest might go into wine, whereas if the following
summer is warm and dry, 20 percent of the orchard might go
into wine,” says Chrapko. He says that due to market
response “and the way things are going,” winemaking
is becoming the lion’s share of their farm income and
will be more so over the next few years.
Keeping things clean
After harvest, the fruit ferments in several vats with capacities
of up to 1,000 liters each, with the whole process taking
anywhere from two to six months. All the wines are purified
and clarified with very fine wire-mesh screens and some paper
filters. Filtration serves to minimize the need for chemical
preservatives. Some potassium sorbate is added, however, at
minimal levels to help preserve wines that are going to sit
on retail shelves. If the Chrapkos get a specific request
from a visiting customer at the farm for sorbate-free wine,
they honor it.
En Santé Farm has a semi-automatic bottler that handles
six bottles at a time and an automatic labeler. Victor Chrapko
says that more than skill or craftsmanship, cleanliness at
all steps during the process is critical, and that he cannot
emphasize enough its importance as a quality factor. No one
is allowed in the room during the bottling process, and any
sneezing or coughing must be done outside. The Chrapkos do
not use chemicals to disinfect their wine equipment, only
They are still experimenting with making small batches of
mead, about 600 liters at a time. Victor Chrapko says the
biggest challenge with mead making (meadhing) is getting a
consistent supply of honey from the hives on the farm, since
each batch behaves a little differently.
"We provide the uniqueness of a small winery,"
he says. "We do not make wine in thousands of hecta-liters.
Consequently, each batch is slightly different, which will
be detected by people with sensitive palates. That is the
nature of handcrafting.
“We also provide the opportunity to shop locally; as
far as organic goes, that is very important. We are not using
fossil fuels—we are doing it right here,” Chrapko
Elizabeth Chrapko does all of the administration and paperwork
for the winemaking enterprise, which is part of highly regulated
industry. Victor takes care of the production, and together
they do the marketing, selling only their best wines. Artistic
labels like those on en Santé’s “Forbidden
Fruit” wines evoke interest and reflect the handcrafted
What they Chrapkos call their “best sellers from the
cellar” are the Calypso rosé wine, made from
rhubarb, and the Adam’s Apple, made from up to 15 varieties
of apples. Most en Santé wines come in a choice of
375 ml or 750 ml bottles, ranging in price from USD$8 to $20.
The en Santé website features stories about the enterprise
as well as serving suggestions for their wines.
The Chrapkos attend trade shows and fairs to promote their
wine and host personalized farm tours for people interested
in their operation. Come spring and summer they host up to
two a week. “The best way to get to know us is to visit
us,” says Victor Chrapko, who finds the visits result
in customer loyalty. The farm is situated near Lac (lake)
Santé, hence the farm name en Santé, from the
French expression translated “To Health!”
Community and environmental leadership
Prior to starting en Santé, Elizabeth Chrapko worked
as a registered nurse and was also a pioneer in establishing
an Alzheimers unit in rural Alberta while she and Victor reared
their four children on the farm. They have a close relationship,
and anyone who has met them knows that each is a counterpart
of the other. Together they are the team that makes the en
Santé enterprise successful.
Victor has shown commitment to environmental stewardship
since he started farming in the 1960s. He was the first farmer
in the area to grow organic crops, totaling 3,000 acres. This
impressed his neighbors, many of whom could not believe he
could succeed without chemicals. With time, he gained respect.
In the 1980s, the couple organized local citizens to keep
a hazardous waste plant from being built in the area and won.
(Post-script here www.ensantewinery.com/history.php
on this effort.)
Victor Chrapko is also president of Alberta Organic Producers
Association, a certifying body for OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement
Association). He says that most of OCIA’s members in
Alberta used to be smallholdings, but that over the last few
years, more large operations are becoming certified-organic
In 1993, the Chrapkos were honored with Alberta’s Farm
Family award, bestowed for community involvement, innovation
and best farm practices. En Santé won an Alberta Best
Practices Renewal Award 2007. It was presented by the Minister
of Agriculture for the operation’s on-farm innovations,
which enabled the Chrapkos to work with consultants provided
by Alberta Agriculture and Food.
“All we know,” says Victor Chrapko, “is
that we are having fun and people say the wines taste good.
The fun part is when people come for a visit, enjoy our wines
here on the farm, and share relaxed stories that make the
happy muscles work. What else could you ask out of life?”