Bottling Up Summer!

Its a busy time at fruit wineries all over the Northern Hemisphere these days. Not only is it busy because wines are being produced from the plentiful fruit being harvested in the summer months but also busy with sales to the public and packaging wines ready to bottle and ship to all these thirsty fruit wine lovers.

Well the following is an interesting article of what goes on in a fruit winery during this busy time of year. I like this article quite a bit because the author did a nice plug for yours truly…read on…

Shelley Boettcher, Calgary Herald
Published: Sunday, August 19, 2007

I can feel my cheeks turning red. I’m starting to panic, and I’m afraid I’m going to lose a finger. Or worse, someone else’s finger.

I’m trying to run the corking machine at Field Stone Fruit Wines in Strathmore. It’s bottling day, and the winery owners and family — three generations — have gathered to bottle a new vintage of strawberry wine.

I’ve volunteered to help, as it’s a labour-intensive day; the team of eight (plus me) will bottle just under 2,000 bottles in about seven hours. I’ve always wanted to learn what it’s really like to work at a winery (just not enough to give up my day job. See corking machine hazards, above).

Let’s face it, the cork is one of the most important parts of the bottling process. Screw up placing the cork and the capsule, that protective plastic sheath that goes around the neck, won’t sit flat on the bottle. More importantly, if you screw up placing the cork, you won’t seal the wine properly.

I try it once, twice, maybe 10 times. Ker-thunk. One’s not in far enough. Ker-thunk. A second one is just, well, wrong. Winery co-owner Marvin Gill gently rejects them, setting them aside to be recorked (not by me). Fingers still intact, I soon let Clarence Weiss, the pro (and Marvin’s brother-in-law), resume his post.

Like wine-making in general, the cork guy’s position — even here in Alberta — is a demanding one. Two years after opening, Field Stone produces more than 10,000 bottles each year.

They make seven wines: strawberry dessert wine, fortified saskatoon dessert wine, fortified wild black cherry wine, fortified raspberry dessert wine, plus cherry, bumbleberry (a combination of berries) and raspberry. The wines are for sale at the winery and throughout southern Alberta. The owners will expand sales to northern Alberta early this fall.

With the help of the winery’s itinerant winemaker Dominic Rivard, they’re also planning to expand to Asia, one of the world’s largest markets for fruit and dessert wines.

Field Stone is quite literally a family affair. The winery is owned by husband-and-wife team Marvin and Elaine Gill, who live on the property; Elaine’s sister and brother-in-law, Lorraine and Glen Ellingson; and Marvin’s brother, Lynden Gill. (Incidentally, for the past 20 years, Lynden, Marvin and Elaine have also owned Rideau Music in Calgary.)

The family’s first foray into the fruit industry started with a u-pick orchard about 10 kilometres from Strathmore. It was a success, and the family realized they needed to do something more.

“We knew we didn’t just want to make jam,” Elaine says. Alberta — with its long, cold winters and unpredictable frosts — is not exactly a hotspot for wine-makers. Yet Marvin realized there was an opportunity for fruit wines, so he talked the rest of the family into applying for a licence to make wine. It took three years of lobbying the provincial government, but finally, in May 2005, Field Stone became the province’s first cottage winery. On July 1 of that same year, they opened their doors to the world. They now operate a small wine shop, winery and the u-pick orchard, where people can show up and pick berries by the pound, as well as taste and buy locally made wine.

Although they all come from a strong history of prairie farmers, they knew little about wine, except what they’d seen on holidays in the Okanagan Valley, says Marvin.

That’s why they hired Quebecois winemaker Dominic Rivard, an award-winning winemaker currently starting a fruit winery, Apsara Valley Winery, in Thailand. Rivard also helped to set up Forbidden Fruit Winery in the Okanagan and the Fort Winery near Langley, B.C.

While Marvin now handles most of the on-site winemaking process, Rivard, who was most recently in Alberta in March, acts as a consulting winemaker and visits Field Stone a couple of times a year, to finish wines before they are bottled.

As for the bottling? That’s where all their friends and fans come in. “We ran out of friends, actually,” Glen says with a laugh. “That’s why we’re all here.”

Indeed, on this sunny Tuesday morning, a team of eight family members and me — all fortified by coffee and Lorraine’s homemade oatmeal cookies — have gathered to bottle a batch of strawberry dessert wine, made this past spring with fruit grown on the farm last summer.

Everyone works together like a well-oiled machine. Elaine sterilizes bottles, while Lynden fills them: empty bottle in left hand, full bottle in right. Glen tops up the steady stream of corks needed to fill the corking machine, a tricky mechanical device that only Clarence, Elaine’s brother, seemed to truly master. Lorraine puts the plastic capsule and label on each bottle, while her niece Kristyn Weiss places each capsule-topped neck into a heat-shrinking machine — count one, two, done — and then loads them in cardboard boxes, all labelled by her grandmother, Selma Weiss (Elaine and Clarence’s mother).

Marvin, meanwhile, schleps boxes back and forth: empty bottles to Elaine, empty boxes to Kristyn to fill with full bottles, full cases to the storage area. All the while, he keeps an eye on the hoses and makes sure the wine is still coming from the stainless steel vat that’s tucked into one corner.

At lunchtime, Elaine pours small glasses of the wine for everyone to try. It’s a dark golden colour, and it has a delicate strawberry aroma — literally like summer in a bottle. The taste? Sweet, but not syrupy, a little like maybe a wine cooler (but without the bubbles.)

That intense fruit flavour is also found in the other wines that Field Stone offers. Like the strawberry dessert wine, the raspberry wine is definitely on the sweet side, while the fortified wines (raspberry, wild black cherry and saskatoon) are perhaps most like a port. They almost defy description in terms of grape wines, though; these are definitely sweet fruit wines, with serious fruit characteristics.

All the Field Stone wines are made from fruit literally grown just outside of the winery’s doors: one and a half acres of strawberries sit right next to 30 acres of saskatoon bushes, 15 of raspberries and — interspersed between rows of saskatoons — about three acres of chokecherries. Unlike grape-based wine, fruit wine — at least in Alberta — can be made as needed. Members of nearby Hutterite colonies help weed the fruit, and pick it when it’s in season.

The Field Stone team freezes the fruit at a commercial freezer in Calgary. Then, if they run low on a certain wine, they simply start another batch. “It makes it very easy for us to always have wine available,” Marvin says.

As we bottle, a slow but steady stream of customers stops in for a sip. They buy a bottle, sometimes more.
Since opening, they say they’ve met customers from all over the world. One fruit wine fan from Florida literally got off the plane at the Calgary airport, rented a car and drove straight to see them. Others have driven north from Ohio and Colorado. Scores more drive out from Calgary and aro
und southern Alberta, all looking for a good product that’s locally made — and they’re finding it. “We’re Napa of the North,” jokes Glen.

With one difference, other than the obvious lack of grapes. I’m pretty sure no Napa winery would ever let me near their corking machine.

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