Continuing a lifetime of innovation, Alberta couple pioneers organic fruit wine enterprise
Fermentation of indigenous crops, hardy apples and even alfalfa add sparkling value to crops.

By Pamela Irving


Photos by Xina Chrapko

When life gives you alfalfa….

Imaginative fruit winemakers as well as practical farmers, Elizabeth and Victor Chrapko have applied their fermentation skills to the world’s favorite legume.

"We look around, see what our resources are, and say, ‘How can we use them? We have 1,000 acres in alfalfa… maybe we can make wine with that, too,’" explains Victor.

Just as they did with fruit, the Chrapkos began experimenting and making small batches of wine from the leafy perennial. "We finally have it to the stage which we feel it is marketable," says Victor. They’ve tentatively called it Green Envy, to be released this fall.

Despite the name, it’s a straw-yellow wine with "a taste that tackles your taste buds,” Victor says with a grin.

He says the process for turning the deep-rooted forage crop into wine is a proprietary secret, for now. “If other farmers want to know how to do it, let them figure it out, like I did.”

--PI

Sweet, tart and in–between prairie survivors

Some of the most popular of the 65 apple varieties in the Chrapko orchard are:

Brookland
Goodland
Parkland
Prairie Sun
Prairie Sensation
Sunnybrook
Red Wonder
Rescue
September Ruby

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 drink.

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.

Mead rising

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 1999.

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 in between.

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 Alberta.

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 hot water.

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 says.

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 contents.

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 as well.

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?”