Chan Thay Chhoeung's neighbours thought she was insane when she began growing grapes on her farm, but she's certainly had the last laugh as tourists flock to her vineyard
Eleanor Ainge Roy
Chan Thay Chhoeung in her vineyard in Battambang, where she makes red wine and brandy.
WHEN Chan Thay Chhoeung, 41, first began growing grapes, her neighbours thought she was unusual, as Chhoeuteal commune, Banan district - some 12 kilometres outside of Battambang town - is known for its oranges and mangoes.
When she began making red wine and brandy, they thought she was crazy, as it seems she was - and is - the first and only person in Cambodia to attempt it.
In a climate barely even suited to the production of white wine, and into a local market where the vast majority of people have no experience with the pricy and pungent foreign tipple, her plan was a tremendous risk.
But Chan Thay Chhoeung and her husband were determined and from their first eight grape vines in 2004, they now have 8,000. She has even begun contracting her formerly sceptical neighbours to produce grapes on their farms.
To learn the art of viticulture, she and her husband bought some English winemaking books and, with the help of a dictionary, laboriously translated them into Khmer.
They tasted wines mainly from France and Australia, and Chhoeng says it took time for her to become accustomed to the strong taste.
"My first taste was very hard because I didn't know how to drink it. The wine tasted very bitter, and I couldn't accept the smell. Now I do like it, but I don't drink much."
Her products, Banan Red Wine and Brandy, sells for between US$6 and $15 a bottle, and she produces between 8,000 and 10,000 bottles a year, but demand still outstrips supply.
Her wine, made from Shiraz and "black queen" grapes, is light and fruity to taste, with a thin colour (like a faded deep purple rather than red), a strong smell of oranges and a hint of cranberries. It is sweet and very drinkable, and the many foreigners who visit her vineyard are shocked she is able to produce such a quality drink from the arid landscape on offer.
She also produces brandy, a strong topaz-coloured drink that tastes five years old rather than actually being so.
She now has three hectares of land under grape cultivation and harvests two to three times a year. The Ministry of Culture recently approached her to sponsor 50 percent of her costs, as her vineyard is becoming a profitable tourist attraction for Battambang province, but Chan Thay Chhoeung declined their assistance. She has plans of her own. Next year, she would like to open a restaurant beside her grapevines and in five years begin exporting internationally. Chan Thay Chhoeng - of humble origins and only educated to the fifth grade - has an entrepreneur's spirit.
"When people taste my wine, they do not believe that I could have made it. It can be a bit rude, actually, but I don't mind. I like to surprise them."