Osoyoos, British Columbia—The verdant, grapevine-swathed hills roll off into the distance, drawing the eye to a backdrop of purple mountains. The table is set under a sun-filled, cloudless blue sky, and the award-winning wine swishes into the glass. You might think you’re in Italy, or at the very least, California.
Improbably, it is in a region that does not leap to mind when one thinks of wine country, and the venue is even more of a surprise: You are on traditional First Nations territory, that of the Osoyoos Indian Band, to be exact, in what is today known as British Columbia, Canada.
Visitors—from canoodling couples to busloads carrying 60 or 70 people at a time—descend daily upon this, the first aboriginal-owned winery in Canada, daily. Tourists arrive in droves, and on a summer day 400–600 people may come wine tasting. They sip, they tour, they shop—the tasting room sells related items as well as wine—and they learn about the culture from the First Nations décor, photos and captions describing the history of the Osoyoos people as well as the Nk’Mip Cellars.
The winery will be one of the stops in the upcoming Fall Okanagan Wine Festival, from September 28 through October 7, and the band’s Nk’Mip Conference Centre will host a formal, “Hollywood style” dinner during the O! Osoyoos Celebrates! Festival from September 14 through 16.
Nk’Mip (in-ka-meep) opened its doors in 2002. Located in the fertile Okanagan Valley just north of the U.S. border and Washington State, it’s in an area nearly dry enough to be classified as desert and warm enough that some Canadians winter here. Orchards and vineyards fill the valleys, and upwards of 70 wineries are located within the Okanagan region. The hot days, cool nights, mild winters and light rainfall help create an ideal region for growing grapes.
The winery has taken fourth place each of the past two years in the All-Canadian Wine competition, a remarkable accomplishment given that it’s up against 300 to 400 wineries. Equally amazing is the fact that Nk’Mip has never finished outside the top 20 wineries in Canada.
Owned by the Osoyoos Band, one of seven bands that make up the Okanagan Nation, Nk’Mip Cellars represents the second phase of a project that includes a resort and spa, golf course, campground and RV Park, cultural center and gourmet restaurant. It sits on 1,200 acres of tribal land just south of the town of Osoyoos, with spectacular views in every direction.
A visit to the Grotto Barrel Room showed about 400 barrels of newer red wines. The white fermentation room contains gleaming metal tanks for processing at cooler temperatures. The winery is small enough—producing about 1,800 cases annually—so that the lack of mass production allows staff to focus on getting the best possible product, aided by state-of-the-art machinery.
Initially the band partnered with Vincor International Inc., an association since transferred to Constellation Brands Inc., one of the largest beverage companies in the world. The Osoyoos Band retains the larger percent ownership in the joint venture. It’s a main component of the economic self-sufficiency envisioned years ago by Chief Clarence Louie, who was inducted into the National Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame in 2011 for the accomplishments his leadership has enabled for the band.
Among those accomplishments is job creation and the rise of people like Osoyoos Indian Band member Justin Hall from cellar hand to cellar supervisor and now, assistant winemaker. He hopes to eventually be named as winemaker.
“I’m a little bit of a blend of Okanagan and Thompson,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network, explaining that his father was Thompson Salish. He began work at the winery just after it opened.
Wine Access magazine conducts the annual wine competition, Hall explained. Each winery can enter as many wines as it chooses, with the final ranking based on the total points each winery receives. The more wines entered, the better the potential to earn points, so some wineries enter 30 or more. Last year Nk’Mip entered 13, and just about every one of them got a medal, Hall said, as had the previous year’s entrants.
Nk’Mip Winery’s 2011 contenders included a 2008 Syrah, a 2009 Pinot Noir and a 2010 Riesling Icewine, each of which won gold medals. A 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2009 Syrah won silver. Wine Access lists the top 25 wineries each year, and Nk’Mip always makes the list, Hall said. The 2012 results will be announced in the fall.
“We’ve always been in the top 20, which is pretty important for us,” Hall said. “We’ve come down. We were fifteenth, got down to eighth, then fifth, and the following two years, 2010 and 2011, we were in fourth place.”
Hall is well aware that Nk’Mip cannot take anything for granted.
“The competition is getting much, much stiffer,” Hall said. “If you’re not moving forward, you’re actually moving backward because the competition is better. They’re always moving forward. So if we just stick to what we’ve done, we need to look at our competition and find ways of trying to be better than them—small things. It’s tough to go leaps and bounds. It’s the small things that make you better.”