The Mad Dream of One Cowboy – Fruit Wine in Saskatchewan

The Mad Dream of One Cowboy - Fruit Wine in SaskatchewanFruit wine in Saskatchewan, the bread basket of Canada? Why not? I know of at least two more fruit wineries in the province and one more that is due to open its doors mid-next year. Here is a great article by Ron Petrie:

Eyebrows no doubt cocked at the aspirations of Maple Creek rancher Marty Bohnet when, during the suffocating politics of the BSE trade dispute, as cattlemen turned to off-farm jobs, door-to-door beef sales — anything to preserve a livelihood — he and his wife Marie similarly changed course, cashing out their share of a three-family operation to establish:

A commercial winery.

Deep in the heart of Saskatchewan cattle country.

Crazy?

Crazy like this past summer, when their Cypress Hills Vineyard and Winery in its first season attracted business beyond all expectation, redirecting the Bohnets’ worries from whether the venture would work to what next they will need to manage the operation to maturity. As reputation of the new winery spread to the nearby Cypress Hills interprovincial parks, outward to Medicine Hat, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, so came the visitors, until the point at which 200 to 300 wine tasters and diners weren’t unusual on a Saturday or Sunday. Since June, they’ve sold 11,000 bottles of wine. On the August long weekend, the Bohnets and their staff poured wine and served lunch for more than 400 guests lined up for tables at the bistro and patio deck.

“Marty said if we build it, they will come,” says Marie. “What he didn’t tell me is they would all come at once.”

A hobby gone haywire is how the Bohnets now jokingly sum up the past dozen years, their pursuit of a dream that traces back to their home wine-making days on the ranch and few grape vines they planted mainly out of curiosity.

Even this day, a cold, rainy Wednesday in September, late in the season and without the balmy Maple Creek weather that the rest of Saskatchewan has learned to envy, the winery bistro is busy. A delegation of provincial government employees has dropped by for wine-tasting and lunch on the way home from meetings at the park. At a corner table dines a group of fashionably dressed women while, across from them, are the ladies of the Red Hat Society, Eston chapter, three hours south of home, magnificent in their purple garb with ugly headgear, and, in keeping with international club rules, having themselves a gas.

Set at the foot of the Cypress Hills, the spanking new winery is both the sort of fashionable stopover that one would expect of the Okanagan or Napa valleys and an establishment not at all out of place with the heritage of the Maple Creek ranchlands.

Surrounded by creeks, footbridges, ponds, trees and shrubbery — no small amount of landscaping toil by the Bohnets — the winery features at its interior centrepiece a U-shaped station for tasting the winery’s main labels: North Slope (2005), a red grape blend; Chinook Red; Saskatchewan Sour Cherry, from fruit developed at the University of Saskatchewan; and three takes on provincial classics, Saskatoon Berry Wine, Rhubarb Blend, and Choke Cherry Wine. Perfect for sipping is a sofa nook by the fireplace, the mantle of which is a timber salvaged from the old McGary homestead established on the site in 1893. Charred edges on the timber are scars of the great fire of 1885. A researcher into long-ago weather patterns once examined the rings on the wood and pegged it as 256 years old before the scorching, a sapling in 1629.

In the back is the new wine cellar, built into a hillside for temperature control, and a large room for the eventual relocation or installation of all the crushers, fermentation vats and corking equipment to make the winery a fully self-contained operation under one roof, including kitchen. “Ah, yes, the kitchen,” says Marty. Only a few months in operation, already the cramped kitchen cries out for expansion. “We grossly underestimated the need for food services.” Another thing to do.

Not that there hasn’t been plenty of things to do already. In the four years it took to raise the first grape vines to maturity, starting out with 18 hybrid strains mainly from Wisconsin and Minnesota and working down to the best seven, the Bohnets also had to be a quick study of the many assorted professions it takes to operate a vineyard and winery — retailer, restaurateur, tour guide, vintner, bottler, distributor, gardener, pest control expert, marketer — and all with little room for error.

“When you go from making wine five gallons at a time to 5,000 gallons, it’s a leap,” says Marie. “If five gallons go bad you say, ‘Well, that sucked’ and you dump it. At 5,000 gallons, the bank gets involved.”

Southwest Saskatchewan, as a location, proved both a help and a challenge. Several times the Bohnets found provincial laws and regulations for cottage wines lacking in allowances for their type of commercial operation. Saskatchewan has, for grapes, a short growing season. Frost, this year as late as June 12, can be a major setback on their 41/2 acres of 3,200 drip-irrigated plants. And the very chinooks that bare grazing land in the winter expose dormant vines to the harsh elements of winter. Hay cover to protect the low-lying plants invites mice; manmade protections must withstand winds. As odd as it might sound, Marie suspects the colder parts of Saskatchewan toward the east with their consistent snowpacks might be more conducive to winter grapes.

On the other hand, the only commercial winery in Saskatchewan has, by definition, a vast market all to itself — certainly a geographical advantage, if not in sheer population figures, and perhaps explaining its explosive popularity during the summer tourism season. What could be cooler than a day trip to a winery, in Saskatchewan? Also, in the Maple Creek district the Bohnets enjoy many long-time friends and neighbours who want to see them succeed. It’s the cowboy way.

“We just completed the harvest,” says Marie. “The first thing you need when you open a winery is lot of friends who will help you out, and who will work for beer.” (Yes, beer. Barley wine. The successful business does not consume its own inventory.) During the hectic summer as many 17 people, full- and part-time, were on the payroll. “I have a lot of ranch ladies help me out and they’re great. They can go out move a tractor if need be, and then come in and make a terrific sandwich.”

For a cowboy in his mid-40s who traded pulling calves in the middle of the night for climbing out of bed to check the thermometer and inspect for vineyard frost, Marty admits to a bit of anxiety this spring as he put the finishing touches on the winery.

“A bit?” He laughs. “Try a lot. We had no idea what would happen when we open those doors, whether we’d be sitting here alone. We didn’t know if people would come. We didn’t know if they’d like the wine.”

His mad dream still has a way to go. Capital start-up costs of a winery are enormous — “We haven’t used a deposit book for a few years now,” says Marty — and much of this winter will be spent in renovations and replanning to better match the experiences of the first hectic summer.

The Bohnets, they’re run ragged. But run ragged is good.

“Sometimes in life you have to take stock,” says Marty. “Sometimes you have to look outside the box. This area of the province has so much to offer, so much more it can be.”

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