In June 2021, the sunny and oh-so-spirited Justin Hall became the new, head winemaker at Nk’Mip Cellars in the southern Okanagan Valley (pronounced in-ka-meep). What’s remarkable about this bit of news is Justin is a proud member of the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB), one of seven bands that make up the Okanagan Nation in central British Columbia. That makes Justin the first Indigenous head-winemaker at the first Indigenous owned and operated winery in North America.
Some impressive firsts.
Of course, none of these accomplishments should be surprising given the over-arching goal of the Osoyoos First Nation is to a) lift its people and watch them soar – spiritually, emotionally and economically b) encourage and celebrate entrepreneurship, and c) to completely shatter the longstanding, Indigenous glass ceiling.
That’s potentially a lot of weight on a young winemaker’s shoulders….unless, of course, those shoulders belong to the ever-industrious and charmingly effusive Justin Hall.
Justin has embraced the dual responsibility of Indigenous role model and HEAD winemaker with verve and aplomb. For 19 years, he was guided by the steady hand of Nk’Mip’s founding winemaker Randy Picton, an innovative, exceptionally talented winemaker whose attention to detail was surpassed only by his – and his team’s – string of exceptional, award-winning wines.
The Indigenous role model part? “Let’s just say you learn a thing or two when you see Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie in action. I spent two terms on the OIB council and learned so much,” he told me when we spoke. “I love being an example for young members of our band. But also, if you’ve met the Chief…. you know failing is not an option!”
A Unique ‘Sense of Place’
The land that Justin grew up on, and where he makes Nk’Mip wine today, is part of the 32,000 acre Osoyoos Indian reserve in the southern desert region of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
In the Okanagan language the word Nk’Mip means “bottomland,” a reference to the winery’s location at the southern tip of the band’s original hunting ground.
Nk’Mip Cellars is just outside of the town of Osoyoos, about a four-hour drive east of Vancouver. The striking sandy grey winery is designed in a Santa Fe adobe-style, artfully blending with the luxury, four-star Spirit Ridge Hyatt Hotel and Resort located just down the road. The 18,000-square-foot winery produces 18,000 cases a year making it small enough to be artisan, but large enough to qualify as a significant player in the British Columbia wine scene.
Nk’Mip’s Indigenous wine is paired with Indigenous-inspired cuisine at the winery’s seasonal patio restaurant where ingredients are sourced locally. Next door at Spirit Ridge’s signature restaurant The Bear, The Fish, The Root & The Berry, the menu celebrates the story of the Four Food Chiefs (Bear, Salmon, Bitterroot and Saskatoon berry) and features modern vineyard cuisine steeped in the creation stories of the The Syilx People and the Okanagan Nation. Further down the road is the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, a truly awe-inspiring, eco-friendly celebration of the OIB culture that curious and thirsty wine lovers will want to visit!!
Nk’Mip’s business partner is Arterra Wines, a joint partnership struck in 1996 by Arterra’s predecessor Vincor Wines, producers of Canadian heavyweight brands Jackson Triggs and Inniskillin Wines (Constellation Brands owned a chapter of this story as well…..see my last post for the full back story!).
Today, Arterra manages the production and distribution of Nk’Mip wines while OIB band members largely manage the vineyards, the winemaking and the winery. According to Justin, working the Nk’Mip Vineyards is a right of passage for most OIB families. “The Nk’Mip Vineyards were first planted in 1968, so it’s fair to say wine has employed most of my family members – and in fact most young people at the Osoyoos Indian Band at some point in time.”
Seeding Winemaking Talent
Justin’s ascent at Nk’Mip Cellars didn’t come easy.
After months of bugging winemaker Randy Picton for a job, he was hired in 2003 to fill the ‘cellar-rat’ starting position at Nk’Mip, which included glamourous tasks like cleaning tanks and hauling hoses. He quickly enrolled in night classes in the Winery and Viticulture program at Okanagan’s local college. Spotting Justin’s raw talent, and to learn the intricacies of a large winery, the Osoyoos Chief and Council sent Justin to West Australia to work harvest at sister Vincor brand Goundrey Winery.
On the heels of that experience, in 2009, Justin was accepted into the acclaimed Enology and Viticulture program at New Zealand’s Lincoln University in Christchurch. He was accepted, based on his five years of Nk’Mip winery experience.
“But I hadn’t been in school for 10 years and all the students in my class were young and doing post-graduate programs.” he explains. “I had to learn how to write an essay all over again.” According to Justin, he developed a wonderfully ‘symbiotic relationship’ with his fellow classmates. “Because I had years of hands-on winemaking experience, I’d help the other students with practical stuff and they’d help me with citations.”
Justin had the added pressure – and pleasure – of having his partner and one-year-old child with him. “We were balancing diapers and baby food and after all expenses we had enough to buy one bottle of New Zealand wine a week,” he laughs. “The band sponsored me and paid me a monthly fee and our partner at the time, Vincor also contributed. But the deal was I had to pass the program. If I failed, I had to pay it all back so that wasn’t going to happen,” he laughed. “I wasn’t at the top of the class but let’s call me a solid B student.”
Wine’s Indigenous Footprint
If you visit the sensational Nk’Mip winery – and you must – you’re immediately struck by the glorious, Indigenous footprint throughout the winery. Is the winemaking practice different at Nk’Mip because of your Indigenous roots, I ask Justin?
“It’s not like as the Okanagan Nation we treat the winemaking process differently. I learned traditional winemaking from Randy, and school and from other experts in the industry. But our principal concern is that we treat the land with respect and ensure its viability for future generations,” he says.
“We’re not interested in robbing the soil of its nutrition and leaving it bare. That would be the ultimate indignity. As native people and protectors of the land, our philosophy is to give back what you take and that’s what our people have always done. If you’re going to take nutrition from the soil and take the grapes from the vine – which is what we do as farmers – we need to give back. You want that microbiology and soil structure to last a lifetime and that means give and take. And a priority for us is to make sure the soils are doing well. Strip the soils and you taste it in the wine.”
Justin says he was taught to pay attention to bugs in the soils. “Clean vineyards are stripped vineyards. It’s not supposed to be that way. You’re in nature and nature is buggy. You need that hierarchy of natural predators.” He says spiders – in particular – are a bell-weather of soil conditions. “They’re one of the best things to look for in the vineyard because if soils are unhealthy, they’re one of the first to go. So, walking into those webs – as annoying as that is – that’s a good sign in a vineyard,” he insists.
What’s different about the Nk’Mip experience and what he’s most proud of is the representation of the Okanagan culture and language on every label, every bottle and every glass. “That was an incredibly bold and brave thing our Nk’Mip founders did. It’s not easy to say – or remember – the winery or the wine names even though we make sure the pronunciation is there on every bottle. Our guests struggle to get it right all the time and we’ve heard it all – Nak-ma-pe, In-meep, Nikamip – but that makes our experience memorable,” he says laughing.
“Also…. every year, there are 20,000 bottles of Nk’Mip wine out there representing our tribe, our native culture and the Osoyoos Indian Band. Those bottles help tell our story of how we had to work for everything we have today and are now one of the most prosperous reserves in North America. We didn’t have oil or natural gas or a river where we could build a damn, or any other natural resource. What we had were thousands of acres of bunch grass and tumbleweeds. Essentially lousy soil that just happened to be perfect for growing wine grapes.”
‘Sweet Smelling Place‘
The Nk’Mip winery is nestled on eastern Okanagan bench lands, in the shadow of the arid, Anarchist Mountain foothills. A small 30-acre vineyard – one of three key vineyard holdings – surrounds the picturesque Nk’Mip winery, with rows of Syrah and Merlot gently cascading down to the mythical Osoyoos Lake.
Another two key vineyard holdings stretch north of the Osoyoos benchlands to the town of Oliver along the Black Sage Bench – considered by many to be the premier viticulture area in Canada for powerful reds. These include the original and pioneering Nk’Mip Vineyards – a 350-acre site planted in 1968 on the lush valley floor, producing superb quality, reserve-level wines.
The other vineyard is leased to business partner Arterra Wines and encompasses some 1000 acres of land. These grapes are earmarked for Jackson Triggs, and include the higher quality single-vineyard Sunrock (180 acres). Interestingly, as the original First Nation’s land owner, Nk’Mip has the option to source grapes from these prized vineyards. “I have tremendous flexibility depending on seasonal variation. If necessary, I can take a hotter site and lower crop to make my QQ (Qwam Qwmt). It’s one of our strengths as a medium sized winery.”
The Osoyoos region and its panoramic vineyards are part of a unique and fragile desert eco-system, the northern extension of the Sonoran Desert that starts in the southern United States.
Sand, sagebrush and distinctive grasslands litter the wild and rugged landscape around Nk’Mip Vineyards, adding a certain south-of-France, garrigue cachet to the wines. Arid Antelope brush – a rare low growing vegetation, is unique to the area and rattlesnakes and burrowing owls call these lands home.
I quiz Justin on the influence of sage and antelope brush on the wine.
“I’m accustomed to it, because that smell and the ‘sense of place’ is all I’ve ever known. But just like garrigue in the Rhone Valley, or herb de Provence and lavender in southern France or the menthol from the eucalyptus in Australia, there’s this character that’s coming from the sage and the greasewood which has this really sweet scent in the spring and it’s a definite aroma in some of the wines.”
“I was asked to think about a name for this earthy smell and the word our elders use for it in the Okanagan language is SÍN Iʔ TMXʷULAXʷ – pronounced sin-eet-teem-who-lowh – which means sweet-smelling place. It’s sweet like the breakdown of organic matter and the cycle of earth between the four seasons. It’s essentially compost, and you bring it up to your nose and when you get that scent of organic matter and you just think….wow, I want to grow a tomato plant in here and you know it’s going to be the bomb because it just smells so sweet!”
Winemaker’s Tier Pinot Blanc is now made in the Nk’Mip “pod” at the newly opened District Wine Village outside of Oliver. Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars
The inhospitable soils and hot, dry growing season were evaluated by the Osoyoos Indian Band in the sixties for wine grape potential. While lack of rainfall, would dictate either spray irrigation or drip irrigation, results indicated the sunshine hours, solar intensity, significant lake effect, mountain shadow influence and matrix of sand/loamy soils and made it perfectly suited for growing European, fine-wine grapes.
In fact, during peak growing season, the southern Okanagan region logs nearly three hours more sunlight per day than California’s Napa Valley. That bonus photosynthesis – long daylight hours – combined with the hot, arid desert conditions definitely provides the heat and raw ingredients for maximum flavour ripeness and nuanced, complex Okanagan Valley wine.
I ask Justin about the sweeping use the term ‘diurnal’ (hot days/cool nights) to explain the Okanagan Valley’s vibrant natural acidity. “Yes, but….. I think we have one of the most sophisticated and challenging growing areas in the world,” he says. “You just can’t generalize about anything in the southern Okanagan. Viticulture is so specific and sophisticated here with planting dependant on macro, meso and microclimate. It’s diurnal, soils, elevation, aspect, lakes…. but every spot is different because of how the valley was formed and the influence of glaciers, which is why you see so many small plantings.”
If you’re planted in the sand, he adds, you find the heat dissipates pretty quickly. “So yes, super-hot during the day and cooler at night. When you’re into the heavier soils further north in the valley around Oliver and Okanagan Falls and on the west side – you see different conditions.” Justin says they grow big red varieties in the hotter, sandier sites – the Sunrock/Osoyoos vineyards. “Those conditions help ripen late varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah….they’re really the all-star varieties that benefit from peak season heat and cooler temperatures during off-peak months. Our whites are planted in the cooler sites with heavier soils – Nk’Mip Vineyards in Oliver.
According to Justin, the sands in the far south Nk’Mip winery vineyards tend to be a white clay and sandy mixture. “But another of our plantings right beside it has very heavy soil, black…. dark earth. We’ve done comparative tastings of Syrah from all these soil types and from neighbouring vineyards to try to understand the difference. Are there patterns? Sandy Syrah produces very high toned, big ripe fruit. When grown in dark soil it’s softer, more opulent with a softer mouthfeel. When you grow grapes in the sand, if you’re not careful you can get a gritty tannin so you have to work those skin and seed tannins just right.”
For the 2,000 cases of Pinot Blanc Justin makes at the District Wine Village, a new wine resort on OIB land featuring 16 different pod-sized wineries, distillers and craft breweries – he blends grapes from the higher elevation Whitetail Vineyard in Oliver with Nk’Mip Vineyard fruit. “The higher elevation site gives us great acidity and these beautiful floral notes with citrus and kiwi fruit and the lower vineyard has rich pineapple, granny smith apple and tropical notes. It’s not diurnal per se – but it’s such a refreshing wine and I love this blend of soil, elevation and vineyards.”
So much to be Proud of…..So many Awards!
Fifty plus years of grape growing success has validated Nk’Mip’s original “terroir” analysis in the south Okanagan.
Today, all of the grapes that go into Nk’Mip wines are grown on land owned by the band. These include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Semillon and Chardonnay. In 1988, anticipating increased competition from a free trade agreement with the U.S., the Canadian government encouraged growers to pull existing hybrid vines and replant with higher quality European wine grapes. So, in 1991, “the great replanting” of the Osoyoos Indian Band’s vineyards began.
Today, some of the original Ehrenfelser and Riesling vines are used in the incredibly popular – first to sell-out – Dreamcatcher blend. It’s a Riesling-Sauvignon Blanc blend created in 2013 by a young, assistant winemaker (at the time) Justin Hall! Today it’s the flagship brand in The Winemaker’s Tier. The Winemaker Series offers Nk’Mip Vineyard premium grapes but in a lighter, softer style for drinking right now.
The Mer’r’iym Tier (pronounced mur’-eem’) means “marriage”, and a ‘perfect union of varietals’. These wines feature a red meritage blend (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc and Malbec) and a white blend (Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon). The designs of Linda Anderson, a renowned artist and member of the Osoyoos Indian Band, are featured on the Mer’r’iym wine labels.
The Qwam Qwmt Tier (pronounced kw-em kw-empt) or QQ means ‘achieving excellence’ in the Syilx Okanagan language. These estate wines are sourced from the finest grapes grown on the 40-year-old Nk’Mip vineyards.
According to Justin, it’s consistency across all the wines that’s the hallmark of Nk’Mip.
“Randy taught me well,” he says. Yes, every vintage brings new challenges and a new story and he acknowledges climate change will only magnify those challenges. “But we know based on the type of season we’ve had and our past experience what the wine is going to be like before we even begin the process of putting it in the barrel.”
Arterra Wines kindly shared the following two wines with me (not available locally).
Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay – 2019 BC VQA Okanagan Valley – $32.99
This is a gorgeous wine. It’s pure southern Okanagan: ripe, round, flavourful and deliciously creamy. I’m reminded the 2016 Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay won gold in an event featuring 679 entries from 39 countries. I expect this Chardonnay will reap its share of rewards too.
Grapes were hand harvested, whole cluster pressed and fermented with indigenous yeast in Burgundian French oak with 38% of it being new barrels.
There’s a lovely bouquet to this wine: honey, lanolin, ripe yellow apple and pear with a toffee toastiness. On the palate, it’s fresh, precise, lightly and judiciously toasted, with Meyer lemon, ripe apple and pear and sweet caramel notes. It’s juicy, medium bodied with a creamy finish that’s deliciously long. Ontario needs this wine.
This wine would pair well with a rich, parm-laced mushroom risotto or seafood stew. Honestly, there’s not much that wouldn’t taste great with this wine.
Platinum Medal – 2018 WineAlign
Gold Medal – 2018 Chardonnay Du Monde
Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Syrah – 2018 BC VQA, Okanagan Valley – $39.99
The 2018 vintage was a bit of a roller coaster ride in the southern Okanagan with a cool wet start, predictable early summer heat, a cooler August, late summer cloud cover and smoke from northern BC fires, and a warm, clear-skied, reassuring October finish.
The grapes were handpicked from the local Nk’Mip and Driver vineyards with each block fermented separately, spending 18 months in French oak barrels before blending and bottling.
This very elegant, balanced Syrah brings black cherry, black currant and blueberry aromatics with a hint of rawhide leather. On the palate, big ripe fruit mixes with gentle savoury notes, telltale black pepper and a light, sweet vanilla finish. The tannins are smooth and supported with a lively vein of acidity.
Justin says, it’s beautiful now, but respectfully requests this wine be cellared for a few years to allow the flavours to blossom. I couldn’t wait (!) and enjoyed it with Osso Bucco and rosemary and mushroom polenta.
Gold Medal – Wine Align National Wine Awards
Address: 1400 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos, BC
Wine-tasting Options: There are many tasting options available with fees waived with the purchase of a bottle of wine. When I visited, we had our tasting on the patio, enjoying the ‘wildlife’ in the vineyard. What do you see, asked the waiter? Deer, we answered. In our culture, that’s called lunch, she said!
*Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, Osoyoos, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
While at Nk’Mip Cellars be sure to tour the 1,600 acre nature preserve and award-winning desert cultural centre with its eco-friendly, rammed earth architecture, an homage to the traditional winter dwellings of the Okanagan First Nations.
Learn about the Osoyoos Indian Band and their traditional territory including the animals, plants, history, people and culture. Enjoy the network of walking trails that span 1.5 km and smell the sage-brush and greasewood grasslands. Explore the outdoor displays and metal art celebrating the roots and customs of the Okanagan Syilx People.