Many people join the wine industry because it boasts a certain connection with the land. The urge to walk the vineyard rows and get one’s hands dirty has pulled a lot of people away from the cities and first careers into new and enriching enological adventures.
Nk’Mip Cellars (pronounced “ink-a-meep”) in British Columbia may have the best land connection story yet. The label is billed as the first indigenous-owned one on the continent, run primarily by the Osoyoos Indian Band. With a majority stake in the outfit, the native community has entered a booming segment of the drinks industry in a way that may inspire other indigenous groups to do the same.
Such ownership carries layers of significance. First, it gives the Osoyoos a say in a New World wine world that, while progressive in a lot of ways, isn’t always the most inclusive. In the increasingly prestigious Okanagan wine region, it returns at least a slice of the iconic name (the Valley gets it name from indigenous members of the Okanagan Nation Alliance) to its original owners. And perhaps most importantly, it allows the values of the tribe to be reflected in Nk’Mip’s ongoing mission, framing practices, and resulting wines.
The label primarily pulls from two vineyards, an estate planting as well as the Inkameep Vineyard in nearby Oliver, BC, planted in 1968. This is the dry, high desert of British Columbia, where picture-perfect vineyards gaze towards Osoyoos Lake. In the midst of a dramatically changing climate and heightened disasters like severe drought and fires, the Okanagan Valley has been tapped by many as the future of West Coast wine.
The label crafts a wide selection of wines, from Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Chardonnay to several blends. The names echo the ways of the Osoyoos, like the Qwam Qwmt (which translates to “achieving excellence”) family of wines, the highest tier of which includes a few stand-alone red varieties as well as an ice wine made from Riesling. The Mer’r’iym line is a duo of blends and means, quite fittingly, “marriage.” The names are the byproduct of consultations between the label and the tribal band.
Winemaker Justin Hall is a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band. Like so many vintners, he started low on the cellar ladder, tasked with cleaning equipment in the production room. On the side, he got a formal education at Okanagan University College and ultimate worked a harvest abroad in Australia. He’s been winemaker at Nk’Mip since the spring of 2017. Other prominent roles are shared by indigenous members, like cellar supervisor Aaron Crey, a member of the Cheam Indian Band.
The Osoyoos Band is no stranger to viticulture, having looked after a number of regional vineyards. Presently, the group tends almost 1,500 acres of vines across its homeland. Part of the inspiration for Nk’Mip, which launched under its original incarnation in 2002, was to take ownership over the entire process. Instead of just growing the fruit — as important as that process is — the native community wanted a chance to share in the overall profits, as well as craft wine and showcase some of its heritage en route.
With so much prime vineyard land residing in or near territories previously occupied by native peoples, there is a real opportunity for social equity. This is the case not only in British Columbia but appellations stretching from southern Oregon and California to Virginia and Maryland. The obvious economic implications are a consideration but so too is the very premise of what brings so many to wine in the first place and what that actually means — a genuine connection to the land.
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