OSOYOOS, BRITISH COLUMBIA — In the Okanagan Valley, conversations inevitably return to the one subject everyone here, or any visitor who has ever been here, is eager to wax on about: the farmland.
It is abundant, picturesque, inviting, and vital. Approximately 200 kilometres long and 20 kilometres wide, the valley is responsible for producing the majority of the fruits grown in British Columbia. More and more, the region’s agricultural activities are focused on the planting and harvesting of a single species, Vitis vinifera, the vines that blossom each year with grapes. All kinds of grapes. You know the names: Pinot noir, Merlot, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and so many more. They’re pruned and picked, sorted, crushed into juice, flowed into barrels or concrete tanks, and stored.
When they inevitably emerge from the bottles into which they’re transferred, the grapes have morphed into the product that has turned the Okanagan Valley into a global phenomenon. The best wines in Canada — some regarded among the best in the world — are created in the valley and the most sought-after grapes, according to most experts in the industry, are created in the southern part of the region, within the borders of Oliver and Osooyos, two small towns with an entrepreneurial spirit and intense viticulture scene.
The grape-growing land of the South Okanagan resides in the traditional territory of the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB), which is a community of about 540 members within the Okanagan Nation, and their agricultural practices and spirituality tied to the land have been important in cultivating the crops that have led to such success for many in the region. The OIB grows most of its grapes on vineyards located in Oliver, home to the prime grapeland in the province, and sells some of the product to winemakers throughout the Okanagan Valley. It keeps enough grapes to satisfy its own viticulture operation, NK’Mip Cellars, which is noted for being North America’s first Aboriginal-owned and -operated winery. In 2016, it was named the Intervin Canadian Winery of the Year and in 2018 it earned gold in France’s Chardonnay du Monde competition, which judged 679 white wines from 39 countries.
“A lot of it comes from experience. We have three winemakers who’ve been working together for 14 years and we know the land, we know the conditions, we know what we’re trying to achieve — sometimes even before we begin the winemaking process,” winemaker Justin Hall says of NK’Mip Cellars’ success. “Because the Osoyoos Indian Band has so much territory in this area and the vineyards have in my opinion the best grapes in the valley, we’re able to work with truly stellar products, and that leads to consistently excellent results.”
Of the 32,000 acres that are on OIB’s traditional land, about one-third is used for growing grapes. The band first planted vines of its own in 1968, taking advantage of the desert conditions in Oliver and Osoyoos that are ideally suited for Vitis vinifera. After decades of selling grapes to other wineries, the OIB, under the leadership of Chief Clarence Louie, an Order of Canada recipient, initiated its own wide-scale operations, revamping and greatly expanding the band’s winery that had been put in place in 1979 on just one acre of territory. Randy Picton, who is not of Indigenous origin, has been the lead winemaker at NK’Mip Cellars since 2002. Aaron Crey, a member of the Stó:lō Nation, which is based near Chilliwack, is the third member of the winemaking team and supervisor of operations. At the outset, the production was overseen by Picton, Sam Baptiste, a viticulturist and former OIB chief, and Canadian wine pioneer Don Triggs, whose Jackson-Triggs winery launched in Ontario and was a forerunner for winemakers in the nation. Jackson-Triggs, Inniskilin and NK’Mip Cellars are now among the brands that are part of Arterra Wines Canada, a leader producer and marketer of wines in Canada. Arterra owns 49 per cent of NK’Mip Cellars and that partnership has helped to grow the brand’s reach while maintaining the vision of Louie and the OIB.
“The Osoyoos Indian Band is traditional in a lot of ways and one of our directions is that we are keepers of the land. We try to use a minimalistic approach when we are working on the land. In our operation we use very little herbicides and pesticides. In the long term, they can cause a lot of problems and be very harmful, so we keep our use of them to a minimum,” explains Baptiste, who manages the vineyard’s operations in Oliver. He was among the workers who planted the first grapevines 50 years ago, when he was in high school. “It’s like smoking salmon or gathering berries for us. We’re farmers. In the early 1900s, we were mostly cattle and horse farmers, but my great-great-grandpa, he did have a tobacco plantation, and we’ve been doing that kind of work, of tending to this land, for a long time.”
NK’Mip Cellars is among the tourism initiatives that have led to prosperity for the OIB community, and others in Oliver and Osoyoos, too. The winery’s tours, which include an offer to taste NK’Mip’s award-winning wines and explore Indigenous culture, take place on the grounds of Spirit Ridge Resort, a property on OIB land that was recently leased to Hyatt Hotels. Hall is among the OIB members employed through these tourism-related projects. In fact, the OIB businesses have created nearly twice as many jobs as there are OIB members.
The efforts of the OIB in providing economic opportunity for its members and others while also fostering healthy grape-growing practices has earned appreciation beyond the acclaim NK’Mip’s wines perennially receive. OIB’s fastidious care for the land contributes to the respect it has found from its neighbours.
“The work the Osoyoos Indian Band has done — not only to put this region on the map, but to also focus on the proper stewardship of the land, how it can be used, how it can be effectively and sustainably maintained — is massively important,” says Joe Luckhurst, general manager of Road 13 Vineyards, which in 2017 was named the British Columbia Winery of the Year from the Wine Align National Wine Awards. “My goal with this vineyard is to make sure we have a healthy farm so that my daughter, who is two right now, will be able to take over this farm when she is old enough and hopefully her kids can do the same thing later on. Certainly, the Indian Band has taken steps in creating programs that we can all benefit from.”