Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Looking Ahead to WBC13 - Week 7 - Nk'Mip Cellars

I confess to having missed a couple of weeks on my pre-Wine Bloggers' Conference Road Trip. Some might well argue that an actual "get-in-the-car-and-drive" road trip hardly trumps or pre-empts a virtual road trip; however, I'm afraid I could only handle one at a time. Despite some lofty hopes of keeping up with the blog - and posting some more pre-WBC13 winery visits - the reality of taking a stab at the Life of Riley proved a little too time-consuming to sit and blog with the laptop.

I think that might be a good thing though. If I ever get caught up and write a bit about our vacation (after all, lots of wine was sacrificed to fuel our trip), I'll check back with you to see what you think.

It's about time I returned to my pre-Conference tour of some of my favourite BC wineries though and, this time around, I'm going to visit Nk'mip Cellars - North America's first aboriginal owned and operated winery. The winery is located just outside of Osoyoos and is owned by the Osoyoos Band - one of the seven bands that make up the Okanagan Nation.

I find the Nk'mip story to be both interesting and inspiring. It began in the 1960's with the planting of vineyards on Band lands found a little ways up the Okanagan Valley - closer to Oliver - in what is now known as the Inkameep Vineyard. No one in the Valley was planting vinifera grapes at that time but the Band sold its hybrid grapes to the wineries of the day and eventually began replanting the vineyards with vinifera grapes. The Band's Riesling vines are now some of the oldest in the valley. Much of the credit for those original vineyard operations is given to Sam Baptiste, the Band Chief at the time. Upon retiring as Chief, he continued his involvement with the operations he helped create and he is now the vineyard manager.

Current Chief, Clarence Louie, was first elected in 1985 and he has continued to move the Band's presence forward in the winemaking business as the industry continued to develop in the Valley. The Band's achievements with him at the helm have earned Chief Louie many business awards - including Aboriginal Business Leader of the Year - All Nations Development Corporation in 1999 and the 2000 CANDO Award for Economic Developer of the Year. During these years, Chief Louie has also shepherded the Band's vineyard operations into a full-fledged winery. Nk'mip Cellars was opened in 2002 - with state of the art facilities - as a joint venture with Vincor, one of the biggest wine corporations in Canada (and now part of the global Constellation Brand).

Randy Picton was brought on board as winemaker in 2002 and has been with Nk'mip ever since. Although not a Band member himself, Picton has mentored Band member, Justin Hall, who started with the winery in 2004 and has worked his way up from cellar hand to assistant winemaker. Aaron Crey, a member of the Sto:lo Band from outside Vancouver, has also taken up residence with the winery and is now the cellar supervisor. Both Hall and Crey have completed winemaking programs at Okanagan University College and have respectively worked on vintages in Western Australia and New Zealand to further their abilities and knowledge.

Not only is the winery a testament to the Band's dedication to creating a culture of self reliance, but it makes a comprehensive range of award-winning, tasty wines - to the extent that Nk'mip is continually named one of the top wineries in Canada in past Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards - including Top BC Winery in last year's edition.

1323.  2006 Nk'mip - Qwam Qwmt Syrah ( VQA Okanagan Valley)

The winery produces two levels of wines - the introductory Winemaker's label and the premium Qwam Qwmt series. In the local Okanagan language, "Qwam Qwmt" means "achieving excellence" and this latest wine to be added to The List was a dark-fruited, spicy bit of excellence by our take.

The winery now has the capacity to produce 16,000 cases annually of its range of reds and whites (there were around 950 cases of the '06 Syrah made) and all of the grapes used by Nk'mip are grown by the Band - either in the vineyard immediately surrounding the winery or in the Inkameep Vineyard. These lands in the southernmost part of the Okanagan Valley are actually the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert - the desert that runs all the way up the West Coast from Mexico - and is Canada's only pocket desert. The region boasts long, hot summer days and cool nights and allows the Band to both ripen big red grape varieties and maintain good acidity levels.

And there's no mistaking the fact that the winery is found in desert country. We made a quick drive up to the Okanagan to take in some of the sagebrush spotted landscape (and wines) during the summer of 2003 when our bud, Merlot Boy, was visiting from Australia. Under somewhat surreal circumstances, we sipped back on a glass of Nk'mip wine on their new patio as we watched water bombers dip into Osoyoos Lake to collect water to fight small outbreaks of fire in the surrounding hills. Think Nero playing the fiddle while he watched Rome burn. The fires around us weren't that intimidating at the time; however, they were all part in parcel of the wild fire that threatened to ravage much of Okanagan wine country that summer.

Although not the most active participant among BC wineries, Nk'mip does have a Twitter presence and came be followed at @nkmipcellars. You can also learn more about additional Band operations like the Nk'mip Desert Cultural Centre, Resort and Gold Course at both the winery website and the Band website. I find Nk'mip's story to be both intriguing and inspiring - and it certainly doesn't hurt that the wines are enjoyable as well. Hopefully, WBC13 participants will get an opportunity to discover Nk'mip themselves.

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