By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
Beekeeping in Alberta has traditionally been associated with honey production, but there are other aspects which are also an important part of the industry in the province. Beeswax, for one. Pollination of crops such as canola, for another. And of course liquor and wine-making.
Spirit Hills Honey Winery just west of Millarville, Alberta was founded by the Bonjean family nearly four years ago. Hugo Bonjean, a former fortune 500 company jet-setting executive and respected author and speaker on sustainability and the importance of the family farm, first came to Millarville with his wife Ilsa and their children 18 years ago. They bought a 13 acre spread and began to reinvent themselves as small scale farmers growing their own vegetables, keeping their own goats to make milk and cheese, having their own chickens for eggs and meat, hunting for wild game to supply their family’s nutrition needs for the year and keeping a few bee hives for pollinating their extensive gardens. It was from these few humble hives that Hugo Bonjean first hit upon the idea to start making honey wine.
“With the winery, we really just got started about four years ago,” explains Bonjean. “It was a combination of things: My kids basically all reached their teenage years and were moving out of the house. I was doing book tours across the country, and being five months away from the house all the time my wife Ilsa wanted me closer to home. At that time we were totally living off the farm; we were homesteading. We had our own goats for milk and cheese, our chickens, and our gardening by then was really working well and we were growing food for the entire family for the year. The only thing that wasn’t happening yet is we weren’t having an income off the farm.”
Bonjean did careful research on what putting together a honey winery would entail. He juggled the numbers, thought about the resources he had to draw on within his land base, and considered what kind of market in Alberta would be interested in locally produced honey wine. He then put his plan into action drawing on his family’s long history of wine-making in France to ensure the best results.
“Honey wine-making is not that difficult in its bare bones, but to get to a good quality product is tricky, to say the least,” says Bonjean. “I come from a family that has seven generations of French wine makers, so I had a really good source there to help me through that process. We really applied the traditional wine-making process to what we do. We use wild essences and honey and apply that to a fruit juice. We use black currants and Saskatoons. The black currant has the same (wine-making) compound as grape, and has it in much higher concentrations. It was a beautiful berry to use as a replacement for grape.”
It took a few years for Bonjean to be completely confident on the operational side of things, with a good deal of experimenting to get things just right. He then stumbled on a new challenge: He had absolute faith in his product, but found the public was not as eager for it as he had first supposed.
“It was probably more difficult to break into this market than what I might have originally thought,” admits Bonjean. “I thought the whole local food scene would just jump right on it. It took quite a bit of education to get them into it, but now the local food scene seems to be really kind of embracing it more. We knew we would be successful when we could get our product in peoples’ mouths.”
Spirit Hills Honey Winery products now have distribution through 110 stores across southern and central Alberta, and they are highly sought after by customers looking to have a true, Alberta, wine-tasting experience.
Bonjean says honey wine and Alberta’s grassroots agricultural traditions go together as naturally bees and nectar.
“We started off by buying 60 hives from a beekeeper, which was a substantial investment. We now have 220 hives all of which for we breed our own queens and hives. Alberta provides two per cent of the world’s honey supply. We are such a major player on a world scale that honey is certainly the natural choice of sugar in this province, and our local prairie berries are fantastic for the reds. And with our white, we actually produce a honey dandelion wine, which is the original settlers wine of Alberta. We harvest our own dandelions on our farm for the wine. For our Wild Rosy we use wildrose petals and for our Yeehaw sangria we use honey, black currants, apples and cinnamon. Our mulled wine is also perfect for those cold Alberta winter nights.”
Bonjean says while there is not much margin in the business as of yet the winery is definitely running in the black and continues to grow and expand its product lines, production capacity and distribution network in stores across the province. His winery is supporting not only he and his wife, but also three of their children who now play key roles in the business.
Like any farm operation, the winery means long hours and pressures to keep up crop output levels. It is also driven by market forces the Bonjeans can’t always foresee. Despite these challenges, Hugo is confident his has chosen the best long term model to support the needs of his family.
“There are three ways you can approach this mead market. Mead in itself is so wide of the variety of tastes that you can actually take honey wine and beer together to give you a whole spectrum of different flavours. The public today, when they think about mead, often think of something that really tastes strongly of honey and is sweet. And for some producers that is the case, but in our case that’s not what we produce. Our goal is really to take market share from the traditional wine market and create a local product Albertans can be proud of,” says Bonjean.