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  Battle River Red

by Fiona Vance

Note: The winery is now located at the Banach farm, located about 3 km south of Battleford. See bottom for contact information.

The wine bottles catch a glint of sunshine filtering through the liquor store window, and the light warps into a mirage of reflected color. The labels are lined up horizontally on the shelf, like even threads on a paper loom, all facing outwards. Battle River Red. Harvest Gold. Lady Di. Sir Walter. These wines range from pale yellow to hushed pink to deep red. Made by some winery called Banach. You lean in to take a closer look. . . and promptly do a double-take.

Battleford, Saskatchewan! Does it really say that?

This reaction is typical when people find out about Banach Winery. But what the casual wine-buyer in a liquor store doesn't know is the inspiring story behind these wines. Banach is the little winery that could.

Diane and Walter Banach at their winery in Battleford.
Diane and Walter Banach at their winery in Battleford.

"We're treated as any other winery," says Diane Banach, co-owner of the winery. "We have the same kind of markup, we have to go by the same regulations, et cetera, et cetera."

Diane and Walter have been making fruit wine for close to 20 years. When they went commercial in late 1996, they started out with a chokecherry wine called Battle River Red, a wine they'd been making for years that's named after the river that runs just north of the Town of Battleford. They've since expanded into crabapple and strawberry wines, with raspberry added just recently.

"I, myself, I really like the raspberry," says Stormie Douville. She and her husband Roger live near Battleford and are good friends of the Banachs. She's tried all the wines and likes them.

"They're very unique, of course. Many people have said, 'well, they don't taste like this', you know. But you cannot compare it with a grape wine because it's a whole different - it's kind of like comparing pop to a real juice."

Visitors to the winery are encouraged to sample the products.
Visitors to the winery are encouraged to sample the products.

Diane and Walter have found that chokecherries and other prairie fruits make excellent wines.

"I've always jokingly called the chokecherry the 'grape of the prairie', eh," giggles Diane. "Everybody gets a kick out of that."

Through word-of-mouth, the Banachs let area residents know they are in the market for prairie fruits. Local people pick strawberries and raspberries on U-Pick farms, or else hunt out chokecherries and crabapples in the wilds. They bring their fruit to the Banachs, who buy them by the pound.

The Banachs freeze the fruit, thawing it out when they are ready to make the wine. Diane estimates their winery yields about 30,000 to 40,000 bottles a year. Except for bottling time, however, it is only Diane and Walter who do the work.

"I'm sure they're doing the job of about four or five people, just the two of them," says Stormie. "People don't realize how much work is involved in that winery."

Diane admits they are 'not getting rich overnight'. And although she's quick to emphasize how proud she is of having made it this far, Diane is not reticent when it comes to discussing the problems they've had.

Getting the licence from the province was a nightmare. Saskatchewan had no policy in place for wineries such as Banach, so there was much red tape and delay right off the bat. But the Banachs never gave up.

"Many, many a time I went to bed at night very, very frustrated and ready to give up," Diane says. "Then we'd talk it over and, I guess, the more they pushed us, the more stubborn we got."

Diane shows visitors how the fruit press works.
Diane shows visitors how the fruit press works.

That stubbornness is at the root of the Banachs' success.

"They persevered," says Roger Douville. "They pushed it and, you know, if you believe in something, you'll go for it. And they believe it."

Then came the problem of marketing the wine. Even with Saskatchewan liquor stores now carrying their wines, the Banachs find publicity difficult to garner, even in the immediate vicinity. Nevertheless, they are determined to keep their low prices static for as long as possible.

They are now in the process of expanding their market into Alberta, since many of their customers are Albertans who spot their winery from the nearby highway. Albertans are only part of the tourist business.

"We get them from all over the place," says Diane, "anywhere from Vancouver to New Brunswick. We've even had some people stopping in from the States."

She keeps a guest book for visitors, who are usually stunned to find their winery.

"Most people associate a winery with grapes, you know," explains Roger. "You have to be in an area that you've got sunshine nine, ten months of the year. And here they are producing wine out of Saskatchewan-grown fruit, like choke berries that no-one wants. And they grow every year."

A Regina visitor browses through the offerings.
A Regina visitor browses through the offerings.

The reliability of the wild fruit crops is one less worry for the Banachs, but the community involvement in picking the fruits is equally important. Except for the raspberries, all the fruit is bought locally. Roger saw this community spirit in action at the winery's grand opening.

"There were people there that picked chokeberries and said 'we're here to try the end result'. And they were astonished. . . They couldn't believe that, 'hey,I was a part of this'."

"I think that's really nice," adds Stormie, "because they're really promoting other people and helping other people in our community by purchasing the fruit. . .

"You really do have Saskatchewan flavor when you buy the wine."

The Banach Winery is located about 3 km south of Battleford. Visits by appointment, call: (306) 937-3209.

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