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BSE Drove Them To The Drink

Great business ideas don’t always seem that great at the outset. In fact, many sound outlandish or even impossible. And while doing something truly different takes courage, the satisfaction of realizing a dream is worth it, say Marty and Marie Bohnet.

The Bohnets own and operate Cypress Hills Vineyard & Winery, the only commercial grape vineyard in the Prairie provinces. These former cattle ranchers took the BSE crisis as their cue to turn their hobby into a viable business.

The idea to start a winery came years before any real building or planning took place. “We were touring some wineries in the Okanagan in 1995 and Marty looked at me and said, “We should start our own winery.” I just thought he’d had too many tastes and too much sun,” Marie says, laughing. But the idea was always there, and while they were growing their own vines and making wine as a hobby as early as 1994, the BSE crisis forced them to take a hard look at the possibility of turning winemaking into a livelihood. At the time, the Bohnets were ranching with Marty’s brother and father.

“Gone are the days where a 100-head cattle ranch can support a family,” Marie says. “Our decision to sell our portion of the herd to Marty’s brother helped us raise some capital and allowed him enough cattle to stay viable.”

In January of 2004, the Bohnets decided to shake their lives up a bit and just go for it. Grape vines take several years to produce fruit, so their over-active hobby of winemaking and growing vines years previously served them well. Marie drew up a business plan and construction began.

“When you go from bottling five gallons of wine to 5,000 gallons, the risks increase. There are also logistical headaches to think about. What if a batch goes bad? Where do you put it? What do you do with the waste?” she says. They learned quickly. Marie took some courses through University of California-Davis to brush up on the science and chemistry of winemaking. As the only commercial vineyard in this climate, the Bohnets had few examples to draw from, making for a steep learning curve.

What surprised Marie, once she started her homework, was that there are grape vines already growing and adapted for cooler climates. “We use varieties adapted for Wisconsin and Minnesota. We had no idea they even grew grapes there when we thought about doing this,” she says. Also surprising was the lack of any funding available to help with business development. “There are programs out there to help you write a business plan, but none to actually help you get the business going. It was frustrating to say the least.”

Despite the growing pains, the winery has been a success. Cypress Hills Winery opened its doors to the public on June 1, 2007, selling 16,000 bottles of wine over the course of the year. This year they have 28,000 bottles to sell and anticipate being sold out by Christmas. They have capacity to produce 36,000 bottles, and have planted more grapes each year to achieve this high water mark. Marie predicts they will reach it in 2011.

Only 30 minutes from the Trans-Canada Highway, the winery will attract visitors on a whim. “We’ve had people from all over the world stop in to see us,” Marie says. “But people who come specifically to see us will drive four or five hours, come for a tasting and lunch, and then continue on to other attractions in the area.” Location, as they say, is everything.

TOUGH PHYSICAL WORK

Marie quickly puts to rest any notion that running a winery is best suited to retirees. “It’s actually a very physical job,” she says as she hefts a 48-pound lid onto a fruit press. Then, peppered with partially fermented plant bits, Marie hauls freshly squeezed rhubarb pieces in an old calf sled to a front-end loader. “Our ranching background has certainly helped as we’re not afraid to get dirty or use our muscles,” she says. “(Making wine) is not all romance.

It’s messy and has its share of drudgery.”

Marty, his handlebar mustache the perfect reminder of his ranching days, is just as active at the winery as Marie. They take turns or work together on wine making days, and Marty is often found offering wine tastings in the front shop. And in the winter, while Marie handles all the book-and record-keeping, Marty works for a local rancher to supplement their income.

Working with your spouse, as many farmers can attest, can be a joy and a curse, depending on the situation. Running a nontraditional farming business is no different. Certainly having a strong marriage can’t be underestimated when setting out on something like this, Marie says. “There are financial strains, plus the stress of building the business — long hours, lack of sleep and worry. All these things can really put a strain on a relationship.”

They can’t escape the weather challenges, either. “We got hail last year,” Marty says. “We lost all our own grape production and instead of adding grape vines this year we’re replanting some that were lost.” They may not be ranching anymore, but they’re still at Mother Nature’s mercy.

LESSONS LEARNED

The vision for the winery quickly morphed in the first year from a quaint place to tour and taste wine to a real destination to spend the afternoon having lunch and relaxing. The food service demand side of the business took the Bohnets somewhat by surprise. “We had thought, “Oh, we’ll serve a few sandwiches and some pie.” Well, this year we’ll go through 800 pies,” Marie says. “I hire a woman in town to make them. She tells me she’s got calluses by the end of the summer from all the baking. We really didn’t anticipate this level of demand on the food-side.”

They “grossly underestimated” the number of visitors they’d attract in year one. This is a good problem, but a problem nonetheless. They responded by expanding the kitchen area and adding staff. The winery now employees 20 people, some full time and several part time. “We built as big as the bank would let us — and it wasn’t big enough,” she says.

The Bohnets also did some things right. “We wanted to build a place we’d like to visit, like places we had been to. We didn’t want to cut corners. We wanted an upscale winery where, after you’ve toured the vineyard and stepped in to the storefront, you’re already anticipating that you’re going to like our wine,” Marie says. “I think we’ve achieved that.”

They also rely heavily on local help with harvests. Winemaking is incredibly labour intensive. The winery bottles more eight varieties of wine, from a traditional red wine, to rhubarb or sour cherry wine and even a honey mead. They do import some grapes from California to achieve specific flavour, but nearly all their fruit wines come from fruit picked very close to home. “The chokecherries grow wild on our property and we hire local Hutterites to pick for us. We grow our own rhubarb as well,” Marie says, noting that it’s not your backyard rhubarb. This is a European variety that’s sweeter than most.

Perhaps one of their only real regrets is that they built the winery buildings, equipment and cellar as small as they did. They’ve added several tanks, bought a larger bottler and automatic corking machine, but all these additions just make the work easier. Too soon, they’ll run out of space and will have to seriously consider a major expansion.

“At some point we have to decide if that’s where we want to

go,” Marie says. “There are economies of scale to consider, but more than that we want to run the business, not have the business run us.”

For now, they do plan to expand to 36,000 bottles over the next two years, and yes, they do take a vacation now and then. They like to visit, you guessed it, other wineries.

Cypress Hills Winery is open most days from May long weekend to Thanksgiving weekend, then open weekends only from Thanksgiving until Christmas. Visit them at

Lyndsey Smith is a Grainews field editor based in Lumsden, Sask.

go,” Marie says. “There are economies of scale to consider, but more than that we want to run the business, not have the business run us.”

For now, they do plan to expand to 36,000 bottles over the next two years, and yes, they do take a vacation now and then. They like to visit, you guessed it, other wineries.

Cypress Hills Winery is open most days from May long weekend to Thanksgiving weekend, then open weekends only from Thanksgiving until Christmas. Visit them at www.cypresshillswinery.com.

Lyndsey Smith is a Grainews field editor based in Lumsden, Sask.

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