Nk’Mip Cellars: The Success Story of Canada’s First Aboriginal Winery

Nk’Mip Cellars may be the most unique winery you will ever have the pleasure to visit. It’s the first aboriginal-owned and-operated winery in North America, and a flagship property of the Osoyoos Indian Band—a member of the Okanagan Nation.

In the Okanagan language the word Nk’Mip (pronounced inn-kah-MEEP) means “bottomland,” and the winery is thus named because of its location at the southernmost end of what was originally the band’s winter hunting grounds.

Owned and operated by the Osoyoos Indian Band and located on 1,200 acres of band land, Nk’Mip Cellars is the first Aboriginal-owned and-operated winery in North America. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Owned and operated by the Osoyoos Indian Band and located on 1,200 acres of band land, Nk’Mip Cellars is the first Aboriginal-owned and-operated winery in North America. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established by treaty in 1877 and overlooking the shores of the warm and tranquil Osoyoos Lake, the Osoyoos Indian Band Reserve sits on 32,000 acres of desert landscape in the hottest and driest part of Canada.

Home to sagebrush, cactus, and burrowing owls, as well as lush, undulating acres of vineyards, it’s Canada’s only semi-arid, desert-like ecosystem. As a result, the hot and long summer days are followed by cool nights. That temperature variation, 12 inches of precipitation, and usual mild winters combine to create an environment for grapes that’s rather similar to Washington’s Columbia Valley and produces some world-class wines.

The band’s first vineyards were planted in 1968, making them among the oldest in the Okanagan Valley. Today, the band’s holdings include about 1,350 acres of vines.

Vineyards at Nk'Mip Cellars overlooking Lake Osoyoos. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vineyards at Nk’Mip Cellars overlooking Lake Osoyoos. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2002, Nk’Mip Cellars was formed in a partnership between the Osoyoos Indian Band and Vincor, at the time Canada’s leading domestic wine producer. The band retained ownership of 51 percent of the winery. In 2006, Vincor sold its 49 percent, together with the contract rights to 1,000 acres of vineyards leased from the band, to Constellation Brands, based in New York.

Last fall, Constellation sold its entire Canadian wine business, including its interest in Nk’Mip and the leased vineyards, to the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan for a reported $780 million.

The Okanagan is also home to Canada’s first aboriginal winery, Nk’Mip Cellars, set amid the rolling hills of the country’s only desert and named Canadian Winery of the Year at the 2016-17 InterVin International Awards. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okanagan is also home to Canada’s first aboriginal winery, Nk’Mip Cellars, set amid the rolling hills of the country’s only desert and named Canadian Winery of the Year at the 2016-17 InterVin International Awards. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wines they make have proven to be rather special. In 2012, Nk’Mip Cellars showed so well at the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards that it was named the No. 1 winery in British Columbia and the No. 2 winery in all of Canada. Nk’Mip Cellars was named Canadian Winery of the Year at the 2016-17 InterVin International Awards.

ka-MEEP and meaning “bottomland” of the valley). The property now encompasses Nk’Mip Cellars Winery, Spitit Ridge Hotel Suites and Villa, Solterra Desert Spa, Canyon Desert Golf Course, and Nk’Mip Campground and RV Park, along with the dramatic Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, itself a winner of a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The property now encompasses Nk’Mip Cellars Winery, Spitit Ridge Hotel Suites and Villa, Solterra Desert Spa, Canyon Desert Golf Course, and Nk’Mip Campground and RV Park, along with the dramatic Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, itself a winner of a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By every measure, the Osoyoos Indian Band and Nk’Mip Cellars are thriving. Yet prior to the election of Chief Clarence Louie in 1985, the band was wracked by poverty and unemployment not unlike other Indian bands and tribes in North America.

When Louie became chief, he developed a hard-driving vision for the band’s economic development that remains today after more than 30 years in office. Fortunately for wine drinkers, this push extends to the cultivation of grapes and the making of wine.

In 2014, the Toronto Globe and Mail referred to the band as “arguably the most prosperous First Nation in Canada, with virtually no unemployment among the band’s 520 members.”

That achievement has been realized in large part to the success of Nk’Mip Cellars, although the band does have more than a dozen successful business enterprises.

Today, the band’s holdings include about 1,350 acres of vines and Nk’Mip Campground and RV Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the band’s holdings include about 1,350 acres of vines and Nk’Mip Campground and RV Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As many winemakers freely admit, Nk’Mip, like most of the wine industry in the Okanagan Valley, owes a good part of its success to an enlightened government policy. Originally, the grapes planted in the band’s vineyards were hybrid varieties that went into the production of bulk wines.

But starting in 1988, the Canadian government encouraged growers to uproot the native and hybrid vines and to replant vineyards with higher quality varieties of European wine grapes. Chief Louie and vineyard manager Sam Baptiste, who had himself been the band’s chief from 1977 to 1985, heard opportunity knocking. And so in 1991 the old vines were ripped out and replanted with new vines.

Today, all of the grapes that go into the annual 18,000-case production at Nk’Mip are grown on land owned by the band. These include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay.

Today, all of the grapes that go into the annual 18,000-case production at Nk’Mip are grown on land owned by the band. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, all of the grapes that go into the annual 18,000-case production at Nk’Mip are grown on land owned by the band. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nk’Mip’s top tier is the Qwam Qwmt series (pronounced kw-em kw-empt) which in the Okanagan language means “achieving excellence.”

The Qwam Qwmt wines are produced in limited quantities and are made from the finest grapes grown in the band’s vineyards.

Where to Stay: Nk’Mip RV Park and Campground

Worth Pondering…

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, I’m finding enjoyment in things that stop time. Just the simple act of tasting a glass of wine is its own event.

―David Hyde Pierce

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