With an intriguing blend of natural beauty and more than 200 wineries, B.C.’s Okanagan Valley is not only Canada’s most heralded wine region but was ranked ahead of Tuscany and California’s Napa Valley on a recent USA Today global list of 10 Best Wine Regions to Visit.
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.
Over the past 15 years, the Osoyoos Indian Band has developed Nk’Mip Resort (pronounced in-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.
The 550-member Osoyoos Band owns more businesses per capita than any first nation in Canada, making it an economic powerhouse in the region and one of the most prosperous First Nations in Canada.
It wasn’t always thus. Like many other First Nation reserves, the Osoyoos Band once struggled with high unemployment and drug and alcohol issues. Eighty per cent lived in poverty, many laboring as migrant field workers.
But all this changed with the election of Chief Clarence Louie in 1985. Raised by a single mother on the reserve, Louie left to get a university education at age 19, enrolling at First Nations University of Canada in Regina and then obtaining his degree in native studies from the University of Lethbridge. He returned to his band determined to reverse the multi-generational damage caused by residential schools and the reserve system.
Elected chief at 24, in 1988 Louie created the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation (OIBDC), with a mandate to develop businesses that both reduce government dependency and create community involvement, to bring back traditional First Nations values of honor, caring, sharing, and respect.
The establishment of the OIBDC was the high-octane fuel that propelled the band to its success today, becoming one of the major economic engines and employers in the South Okanagan, generating more jobs than it has band members.
In a joint venture with Vincor, at the time Canada’s leading domestic wine producer, Nk’Mip Cellars opened its doors in 2002. Some 135 people—band members together with non-natives—work at the 18,000-square-foot Nk’Mip Cellar and its vineyards, with all wines made from grapes grown on native soil.
Success at Nk’Mip’ can also be attributed to the steady leadership of head winemaker Randy Picton, at the helm since 2002, and to the stability of his staff.
Under Picton’s highly regarded leadership, the Nk’Mip wines are thoughtfully made, terroir-driven, and style-conscious.
Justin Hall’s story demonstrates the commitment of Chief Louie and Picton to helping band members advance to their highest potential. Hall came to Nk’Mip in 2004 at age 22, describing himself as just a kid looking for winter work during the off-time from his regular job cutting grass on the golf course.
Starting as a cellar hand, the band sent him to Okanagan College in Penticton for two years of training in viticulture and enology. After completing that program and working for an additional five years in the Nk’Mip Cellar, the band again sought to further his advancement and sent him to New Zealand’s Lincoln University to obtain his post-graduate viticulture and enology diploma, making him the first-ever certified First Nations winemaker in Canada.
He returned to Nk’Mip as the assistant winemaker, and he hopes to take over as head winemaker when Picton retires. One of his creations is Dreamcatcher, a blend of five white grapes.
Enthusiastic and optimistic, 35-year-old Hall represents a younger generation of First Nations who are reversing centuries of oppression, savoring a taste of financial success, and starting to believe in their future.
He notes that the band’s goal is not just to make money but to encourage young native people like him to enter the business.
Where to Stay: Nk’Mip RV Park and Campground
Let us celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words,