New Fruit Wine Developments in Alberta

Lots of developments in the Alberta, Canada fruit wine industry. Here is an interesting article by MEL PRIESTLEY, of EDMONTONJOURNAL.COM that shows what is going on in the prairies and the story of a new winery that started out like most wineries; a dream…

Rick and Amy Barr started making wine in their basement decades ago from the fruits growing wild on their farm in Strathcona County.

It tasted good — so good that they took their friends’ and family’s praise to heart and started making wine to sell. Barr Estate’s rhubarb wine, The Barb, and raspberry wine, The Other Red, made their debut last summer at the Edmonton City Market.

Sales have been pretty good during their first year, the Barrs say, and they’re hoping a recent change in liquor distribution regulations will make the next year even better.

Their first challenge was to ensure they could grow enough good-quality fruit to make consistent wine, which meant, among other things, picking rocks from the ground to make way for more plants.

They transplanted several raspberry bushes and rhubarb plants first grown by Amy’s grandparents in the 1920s on their Strathcona County homestead. All the fruit they need for their wine now comes from these heritage plants, which are unofficially organic, as the Barrs avoid using chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.

As the winemaker, Amy is busiest during the growing season, monitoring the crops and making the wine. Rick handles most of the marketing and distribution, a year-round struggle to hone their branding and get their product into the public eye (or rather, mouth).

Meanwhile, both juggle full-time careers as researchers at the University of Alberta Cardiovascular Research Centre.

To design their striking labels, they employed Edmonton marketing agency Vision Creative, who also developed the look for Alley Kat Brewing Company. Local foodie and editor of The Tomato, Mary Bailey, wrote the tasting notes that adorn the back of the labels. But by far their biggest challenge has been distribution. It’s not prohibitively expensive for Barr Estate to sell wine from the farm gate or at the market — it costs them a 70-cents-a-litre fee to the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission. But their reach is limited.

They could list their wines with Connect Logistics, the distributor from which all restaurants and liquor stores in Alberta must order their alcohol. But at $3 per litre, it would have cost $7,000 for the roughly 2,250 litres they made in their first year — too much.

Until recently, microbreweries were the only exception to the distribution rule; they can sell directly to liquor stores and restaurants at the 70-cents-a-litre rate.

So, Rick and representatives from other Alberta cottage wineries met with the AGLC to ask for the same deal, and last month, they got the good news. It’s a huge boon to the fledgling industry, as it enables wineries to boost distribution without drastically raising overhead.

Barr Estate’s arrival on the scene signals a change in Alberta’s cottage wine industry. The Barrs leapt into winemaking for its own sake; the other four wineries — Field Stone, Fruit Salad (formerly en Santé), Chinook Arch Meadery and Fallentimber Meadery — all started out as fruit growers and/or honey producers, who only began making wine as a way to diversify their businesses after legislation permitting cottage wineries was passed in 2005.

“We’re a bit unique compared to the others,” says Rick. “We were winemakers first, and we needed to find fruit.”

He and Amy maintain a cautious optimism.

“I think the industry can thrive,” Rick says. “But there’s a lot of education we need to do with the public. … There are still numerous people who aren’t even aware there is a cottage wine industry in Alberta.”

Mel Priestley blogs about wine, spirits and beer on her website, CellarDoor. Follow her on Twitter @melpriestley.

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