OSOYOOS, British Columbia – The Okanagan Valley slices through the mountains of south-central British Columbia, Canada for about 145 miles. The valley is blessed with warm, dry weather and a long, cool lake.
Since Oblate priests planted the first vineyards there in the late 1850s, the wine industry has flourished. Today, grape vines neatly line the slopes, their greenery contrasting with the arid hillsides. The Okanagan Valley is a major Canadian wine-producing region, boasting more than 100 wineries. But one stands out.
Nk’Mip Cellars, the first aboriginal-owned and operated winery in North America, is tucked away at the south end of the valley. Located on a hillside in Canada’s only desert, the winery has glorious views of the town of Osoyoos, vineyards and the surrounding wild sage desert; this is the land of the Osoyoos Indian Band, known as Nk’Mip in the Native Okanagan language.
The winery is housed in a beautiful building that displays Native art including masks, paintings and carvings. Tours and tastings are popular, and aboriginal-inspired cuisine is offered at The Patio, a seasonal outdoor restaurant at Nk’Mip, where the menu is in the Native Okanagan language. The winery is elegant and culturally rich.
Opened in 2001, Nk’Mip Cellars has been successful and hosts 50,000 visitors each year. It produces 18,000 cases annually of premium varietal wines such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, as well as exotic ice wine. Thanks to the hot weather, Nk’Mip produces big bruising reds. Care is taken to make only high-quality wines; all grapes are hand-harvested. Nk’Mip’s wines have been recognized with more than 50 awards.
A major tourism complex has sprung up around the winery, including the Sonora Dunes golf course, the Spirit Ridge Resort & Spa, which includes a conference center, an RV park and the stunning Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre that celebrates the land, the legends and the history of the Osoyoos Indian Band.
The winery and its associated facilities are an accomplishment, since the Osoyoos Indian Band consists of only 460 people. Their reservation has 32,000 acres, 1,200 of them are planted withgrapes. About 340 acres are used for Nk’Mip Cellars and the rest are leased to other wineries. The vineyards and winery are operated as separate business entities. The former employs about 80 at peak and the latter employs about 35 at peak.
The band has been growing grapes since 1968 and long dreamed of starting a winery. Two people played key roles in making the dream come true. Sam Baptiste, a former band chief, provided the technical leadership. He studied horticulture and viticulture at the University of Washington State and has applied that knowledge as the general manager and viticulturalist of the vineyard.
Clarence Louie, who first became band chief in 1985, is one of the most dynamic aboriginal leaders in Canada. His approach is no-nonsense. “Get off of welfare. Get off your butt,” he said at a recent aboriginal conference. “Our ancestors worked for a living; so should you.”
Goals and a vision were established at the start, and the bar was set high. A casino was rejected. Instead, the Osoyoos Band wanted a facility they would be proud of; one that would showcase their culture. A great deal of research was conducted. A vital step was to partner with Vincor, one of the largest wineries in Canada, who brought in technical knowledge and experience. The intention is that the band will become the sole operator, once it has developed sufficient expertise.
Under Louie’s leadership, not only did the winery take shape, but the Nk’Mip band has become one of the most progressive in the country and is recognized for its entrepreunership and economic self-sufficiency. The band’s businesses generate annual revenue of more than $15 million. The band’s Centre for Aboriginal Enterprise offers courses such as Leadership & Entrepreneurship, Sustainable Economic Development, and Governance, which draw participants from across Canada.
Nk’Mip Cellars has surpassed its goals. It generates revenue, is the focus of a major resort development and is a source of pride. And like a good vintage, the winery and resort continue to improve with time.