MILLARVILLE, Alta. — With names like Saskwatch, YeeHaw, Bastard, Redneck and Bonfire, the folks at Spirit Hills Winery like to infuse a little Alberta culture into every bottle of wine they make.
Owned by Hugo Bonjean and Ilse de Wit of Millarville, located in the southern Alberta foothills, the wine is found in 200 Alberta liquor stores and has flowed into Saskatchewan, Belgium and Japan.
The family emigrated from Belgium 21 years ago to Millarville. Hugo was an executive with Marriott International and Ilse was raising three small children.
Interested in growing as much of their own food as possible, they dug a large garden but had to experiment with plants that grow in a high elevation area with Chinook winds and weather variability. To step up production, they added bees.
The garden flourished and so did the bees.
“It was quite amazing. We probably had a 50 percent increase in vegetables in yield but all of a sudden we also had honey,” Ilse said.
Hugo was already a home vintner so they decided to try making fruit wines. Rather than using sugar they substituted honey. During the wine-making process sugars from honey are converted into alcohol, just like the sugar in sweet grapes is converted into alcohol in traditional wine making.
“That was a totally new level of flavours because sugar doesn’t taste like much. Of course honey has all these different flavours,” she said.
“We knew we had a fantastic product. It is always hard to sell something new. These wines are totally unique. Within that small category of mead, we are very unique within that category, which is fun.”
Their product has been named best honey wine in Alberta two years in a row.
They now have 300 hives. Some of the bees stay on their property and others go to local ranchers and farmers for pollination. In exchange, the neighbours receive honey and wine.
The couple went into commercial production six years ago and it has become a full-time job for the entire family.
They converted Ilse’s horse barn into a rustic winery and warehouse, which was refurbished with used western items they picked up from Kijiji.
Hugo descended from French wine makers where his relatives’ vineyards are still in operation. He and their son, Bjorn, are the winemakers and their daughter, Amber, is part of the marketing team. Their younger son Fabian takes care of mechanics on the farm.
They love the western lifestyle and promote the culture with every bottle.
“People love the story,” said Hugo, who is also a published novelist.
“It is a story that is rooted in Alberta’s culture in a new way. They can relate to all of it because it is part of Alberta’s genes,” he said.
They sell in liquor stores but also promote their wines through on-farm tours and at large craft shows where Hugo appears with his cowboy hat and big belt buckle.
There are fewer than 10 honey wine producers and they would like to see more join the industry to spread the word about the product.
“People have a very narrow perception of what mead is,” Hugo said.
They may have had a sample and did not like it because it was too sweet. However, there is as wide a spectrum in honey-wine flavours as there is among craft beers and cocktail spirits.
“The variety is endless and so for people to say they tried mead and didn’t like it, is like saying I tried beer or wine and now I don’t like alcohol,” he said.
Being local is another part of their program.
Fruit is purchased from area growers and every summer they pick about 10 kilograms of dandelion flowers for their specialty medium dry white, Dande.
Saskwatch is made from black currants, saskatoons and honey, which ages for a year in oak barrels. A semi-sweet rosé, Wild Rosy is crafted from honey and wild rose flowers and their cowboy’s sangria, YeeHaa is made of honey, black currants, saskatoons, apples and cinnamon. They also make a mulled wine crafted from honey, black currants, saskatoons, cinnamon and cloves.
They produce about 68,000 bottles a year but have the capacity to expand to 120,000 bottles. Honey is always available and the fruit is frozen so they can make wine year round.
The pair formed a wine club and staged a cooking competition last year at a Calgary wine store. The competition resulted in a cookbook called Tipsy Kitchen matching foods with their wines that includes combining it with Alberta game.
Bonjean is always planning. With the success of the fruit wines he wants to experiment with growing Northern Climate grapes on their 93 hilly acres to produce their own grape wines.
Producing a popular product also introduced them to the world of regulation.
A major coup for them was exporting wine to Japan last year.
They also sell into Belgium, Alberta and would like to expand sales to other places, but regulations have so far restricted them.
Their wine is available in Saskatchewan, but they have been unable to cross other provincial borders.
“It is easier to go to another country than it is to sell to other provinces,” he said.
In Bonjean’s opinion Canada was more open when they arrived 20 years ago but they find the regulations are tightening all the time and that curbs investment and innovation.
“They are in the same regulatory environment that Europe was in 20 years ago where businesses of all sizes from big oil companies to small businesses like ours are continuously chained up,” he said.