New winery sells Prairies in a bottle

Peter and Collin MacInnis work in the rhubarb patch. Their passion recently came to fruition with the company’s first batch of 1,150 bottles of rhubarb wine.  | Supplied photo

Two couples grow fruit that can tolerate Saskatchewan’s harsh environment as they work to make their dreams come true

A long love affair with wine has led to Saskatchewan’s latest craft winery.

“When my wife and I first met in the earlier part of the 1980s, one thing we always enjoyed doing was making homemade wine,” said Peter MacInnis, chief executive officer of Bee and Thistle Winery northeast of Debden, Sask.

“As time went on we had a family and kids, made a little bit of wine here and there and enjoyed what we had.

“Some batches turned out really good. Lots didn’t, of course, but we didn’t understand really what we were doing other than trying to follow a recipe and more or less hoping for the best.”

That passion recently came to fruition with the company’s first batch of 1,150 bottles (680 litres) of rhubarb wine, while the first batch of haskap is set to be bottled this month.

Ownership and operation of Bee and Thistle is an all-in-the-family venture. Seven years ago, MacInnis and his wife, Margaret, along with his brother, Collin, and sister-in-law, Anne, pooled their resources and bought land near Debden, not far south of the boreal forest.

MacInnis said start-up costs for the small winery have exceeded $250,000 and have been several years in the making.

“We can produce up to 5,000 litres at a time when we make our batches. It’s a nice little winery and we’re very happy with it.”

However, it wasn’t long after setting their sights on establishing 10,000 haskap plants and a large rhubarb patch in a 10-acre orchard that hard-earned experience started flowing.

“I’d certainly do it a lot different, like most people would tell you when they started doing something new — lessons learned,” he said.

The early years were a dance of sorts — trying to keep the young plants watered while not being overrun with weeds.

“The plants did grow very well. They’re very tolerant in this Saskatchewan environment, but one of the things we learned was weeds. Weeds will run you out of house and home. It’s a lot of work to keep them under control.”

“We had two years that were really dry, so if I was to redo that part I would put the plants in plastic. I’d have an irrigation system. That’s not going solve everything, but certainly reduce the physical workload that you’re going to experience,” he said.

Instead of going a traditional route of hiring a winemaker, Margaret MacInnis completed the two-year online winemaker’s certificate through UC Davis at the University of California.

“She’s one of a small handful of certified winemakers. I call her the professional. There was a lot of chemistry on the course, and that was a secret that we learned to being able to make good wine. You need to understand chemistry and what’s going on,” he said.

Brother Collin is also contributing his skills as foreman and technical expert while Anne is general manager of the operation.

They are also growing a five-acre orchard nearby, which will supply the winery with cherries, black currants, saskatoon berries and eventually melomels and mead.

A distillery to produce spirits is also planned for a future expansion, which will double their 750 sq. foot production capacity.

A lengthy process has followed to become licensed through the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority as a commercial craft producer.

“We got our first batch put on and we just bottled it a few weeks ago. So now we’re doing settling of the bottles from what’s called bottle shock and get our labels ready.”

He said they expect to have the wine ready for market in January — available for purchase online, retail and in selected restaurants.

Fishing and hunting initially led them to the area but Debden’s sense of community sealed the deal because it reminded them of their Nova Scotian roots.

“Every time I came down there, it was like being back in the Maritimes where I was from. It’s a small town, the friendly people, people look out and help each other. I ended up selling lock, stock and barrel out of Alberta and moved one cold, stormy day in the middle of February down to Debden and I’ve never looked back,” he said.

Their upcoming batches of haskap wine, called Chiad Fhion, and rhubarb wine, called Loch Aline, were named in honour of the family’s Gaelic traditions in Antigonish, N.S.

“It’s a huge Scottish heritage there and we’re very proud of it. The biggest thing for us was the name of our winery, the Bee and Thistle. That’s our family coat of arms and all our wines are named after areas in Scotland where our family castle Kinlochaline is,” he said.

Collin MacInnis stirs a batch of haskap wine. | Supplied photo

MacInnis sees Saskatchewan’s young craft wine-producing industry following British Columbia and Ontario’s wineries.

“One thing I noticed is there was a co-operation between different craft producers, whether it be a beer, wine or distillers, they all helped each other. They all promoted their industry. The tourism industry developed from that and that of course promotes their wines,” he said.

“We believe that craft producers should always work together and promote each other in this new five- to 10 year-old industry.”

In fact, making trips to see other distilleries are enjoyable outings.

“People ask me what I think of their products or other wine makers. I go and buy their wines not to see what my competition is doing, but to promote and support them. And I just enjoy the products that they make. They’re wonderful,” he said.

With their latest batch in the bottle, it has paved the way for some timely reflection.

“You’ve got to be able to look down the road when you want to get into something like this. It’s not plant in the spring, harvest in the fall and get your paycheck. We don’t have anything like that in the winery,” he said.

And while they celebrate their first vintages, the MacInnis family ancient motto of E Labore Dulcedo — “In labour, we find pleasure” — remains top of mind.

“From work comes pleasure is the driving force behind everything we do,” he said.

“Our mission is to work hard, nurture the haskap berry and other fruits, and have them supply and reward us with many years of crafting quality fruit wines for you to enjoy.”

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