Four big wins at a prestigious international wine competition are putting a small town Saskatchewan winery on the map.
Vance Lester and his wife Sue Echlin, owners of Living Sky Winery took home one gold and three silver medals at the Northwest Wine Summit in Hood River, Oregon in May.
“Winning at this competition is really showing Canada and the world what Saskatchewan can do. People don’t expect wine like this from the province, but we are showing folks what high quality, fruit wine is,” Lester said.
Lester and Echlin produce artisan fruit wines and ciders from their winery near Perdue, Saskatchewan – a town 60 kilometers west of Saskatoon. It’s all made from locally produced fruit, most of which they grow themselves.
They planted their first orchard in 2005, sold their first bottle of wine five years later and started winning awards almost immediately – though never internationally, until now.
Living Sky Winery was the first Saskatchewan winery ever to participate in the Northwest Wine Summit. Until this year, there wasn’t even a category for the region, though Echlin and Lester changed all that when they entered three of their fruit wines and a rhubarb cider, and won.
“This is a really big deal in the fruit wine industry. There are days when we are tired and exhausted, but this is a little bit of extra validation for us,” Echlin said.
The competition focuses exclusively on wines made in Western Canada, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. The judging panel consists of wine experts from across the United States, and the competition is stiff – long established wineries with a strong foothold in the mainstream wine market.
Even so, Living Sky Winery stood out against its competitors.
“Saskatchewan is becoming a new wine region, and people who pay attention to fruit wines are paying attention to us. These judges have put us in the same class as some very popular wines, and that’s really cool,” Lester said.
“All the years of hard work we’ve put into this, the sweat, the tears and the all-nighters are all paying off now.”
Today, Living Sky Winery sits on 164-acres of farmland, wetland and orchard, underneath a beautiful old train bridge, one that could be as old as the province. Echlin and Lester grow everything they need to make their wines and ciders – cherries, raspberries, rhubarb and more.
What they don’t grow, they buy, but only from other Saskatchewan producers, a rule that is at the heart of their vision.
“We are working to create something that will allow us both to stay on the farm, but in a way that is sustainable and that can give back to the community,” Echlin said.
The couple tries to source their clothes, food and extra fruit from local producers as much as possible. When they need workers, they hire locally, creating jobs for at least 15 people in peak months – but it doesn’t stop there.
“Both of us are extremely eco-conscious. Vance is a biologist by training and is hyper-sensitive to the effects chemicals can have on the wetlands, so we don’t want to do anything that isn’t going to improve the environment,” Echlin said.
Living Sky Winery is not certified organic, though Echlin said they like to use the term “environmentally sensitive”. They don’t use chemicals, which makes managing the orchards more labour intensive.
“We are in a stage of insane growth right now. The demand for our product has been higher than we can meet,” Echlin said.
In their first year of business, Living Sky Winery sold 4,800 litres of wine and cider. Now, two years later, that number has grown to 20,000 litres – a number Lester and Echlin didn’t expect to reach for another three years.
“We put 140-percent of our life into this. I like to joke around and say that I am the single mother of a bouncing baby winery,” Echlin said.
Though now, that is changing.
Recently Lester decided to quit his job at the University of Saskatchewan to focus full time on the winery. Despite the move, the goal now is not to get bigger, but to stay artisan instead, and to develop a fully sustainable lifestyle on their farm.
“We want to continue to make something cool and unique. It’s more important to us to sell 500 litres of award winning wine every two years, than to promise 20, 000 litres of wine every two-weeks,” Echlin said.
“It’s not about the money, it’s about the lifestyle.”
For more information on Living Sky Winery, please see their website or contact:
Vance Lester and Sue Echlin
Telephone: (306) 290-1693
Photograph courtesy of Living Sky Winery.