Southern Alberta honey winery toasting to sweet success in Japan market

A small family-owned winery in southern Alberta is toasting to its growing business — in Japan.

On Rachel Notley's recent trade mission to Asia, she raised a glass to the growing partnership between Alberta and Japan.

The wine in her glass was Millarville's Spirit Hills honey wine  — which will soon appear on liquor store shelves across Japan.

Winery owner and operator Hugo Bonjean said the company sought out additional markets for its products when Alberta's economy started to decline, but he soon realized it wouldn't be an easy feat.

"We learned that it was actually very difficult as an Alberta producer to sell your product in other provinces in this country, so we decided to look at markets outside of Canada," Bonjean told the Calgary Eyeopener.

Canada's current Intoxicating Liquors Act strictly limits producers' abilities to sell their product outside of their own province. Selling across provincial borders is only allowed with permission from the other province's liquor board.   

Frustrated by these "mind-boggling" limitations, Bonjean contacted Alberta's Ministry of Economic Development, which helped him find new markets for their wines.

Bonjean said the keys to selling products in Japan are to have a quality product with good presentation and to have a story that makes the business attractive to consumers.

Spirit Hills think they have both.

Living off the land

Spirit Hills is a family-farm-based operation that lives primarily off the land they tend — growing their own vegetables, hunting meat with bow and arrows, having chickens for eggs and goats for their milk and cheese.

"That commitment to living off the land and pure ingredients, and growing things organically, and applying biodynamic practices is what really captured their interest, because they see that reflected in the quality of our wine," Bonjean said.

Spirit Hills prides itself on making Alberta wines with all-Alberta ingredients. Instead of grapes, the winery uses honey as its fermentable sugar and adds ingredients like black currants, saskatoon berries, dandelions and wild roses to create its wine.

Bonjean said wine-making runs in the family — he comes from a long line of French wine-makers — and expanding the business will allow the company to bring more family members into the fold.

Currently, the winery employs five people, but Bonjean expect that number will quickly grow.

"We have an application in with the municipality to see if we can double our building because we need to triple capacity to handle this," he said.

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener