By Richard Lorenzen
The connection between the First Nations People and the land has always been secondary only to the importance of family and band. The land sustains us and in many ways is part of each person.
We have lost that intimate contact with the earth for the most part, to our loss. Those that have maintained the link to the land have done so mainly as subsistence survivors. It is a great day when one meets a band that have achieved prosperity on the land of their forefathers.
That land is hot, dry and beautiful. The last desert in Canada. Here on September 9th, 2002 two ceremonies occurred. In this setting of stark beauty the NK’MIP band (inkameep) opened the first Aboriginal owned winery on the North American continent, Nk’Mip Cellars. Early the same day the band opened its Nk’Mip Desert and Heritage Centre, an ecotourism site.
Chief Clarence Louie says that the opening of the winery represents a thirty-year desire by the Nk’Mip to use the grapes grown on its own Inkameep Vineyard to produce its own wine. Thus going from “soil to glass”. Opening
The winery is a joint venture between the band and Vincor, an international corporate body that includes many of the important vineyards and wineries of the Osoyoos area. Vincor is the fourth largest producers and marketer of wines in North America.
The opening ceremonies were held first for the Desert & Heritage Centre. Then we climbed the hill to the winery where the opening for the Nk’Mip Cellars took place as the sun set over Lake Osoyoos.
Master of Ceremonies Gerry Barrett, from the native voice of Manitoba NCI-FM introduced two elders who, in the language of the Nk’Mip said prayers and blessed and cleansed the sites with smoke.
The Okanagan Drummers performed traditional songs throughout the ceremonies and sage rope cuttings. Ross Fitzpatrick and Robert Nault of the federal government congratulated the Nk’Mip on their initiative and entrepreneurial spirit.
Donald Triggs, president and CEO of Vincor International, spoke to the excitement and high expectations he and his whole company have for this joint venture.
Chief Robert Louie of the local band made a presentation of a native basket and congratulated Chief Clarence Louie and his Band on their accomplishments.
Chief Clarence Louie talked not only of the past progress but outlined the future projects that the Band will build on these past successes.
Dinner was then served to the guests and visitors. The meal was made up of traditional foods the Nk’Mip have feasted on for centuries. Served with the wines of the Nk’Mip it was fabulous. The diners were entertained throughout by fancy dances, the hoop dance being particularly spectacular. Speeches were given from the visiting dignitaries.
The site of the winery building is one of the most attractive in the South Okanagan. It is situated on a bench overlooking the shores of Lake Osoyoos.
Architect Robert Mackenzie has taken note of the curves and angles of the surrounding hills and local tradition to produce a stunning building that seems to bridge the contrasts between the tract of natural desert on one side and the cultivated vineyards on the other.
The prominent arch is taken from the ancient pictographs that show the People sheltering under just such arches.
Filled with local art among the metal machinery and vats of a working winery it pays homage to the past while pointing to the prosperity possible in the future. With its natural colours and textures the building makes a statement with out discordance with its surroundings. It is a great addition to the tourist destinations in 0soyoos.
I would suggest that after visiting the Desert and Heritage Centre that the visitor cool off at the winery’s patio above Lake Osoyoos.
Wine in production
The 18,000 square foot Nk’Mip cellars will produce 15,000 cases or 135,000 litres of wine per year. The winery is set up to handle sixty percent red wine and forty percent white grapes. The wine will be fermented in temperature controlled tanks and equipment specifically selected to handle the grapes, juice and wine as gently as possible.
Selected French and American oak casks will be used to age them perfection. The wines produced initially will be a merlot, pinot noir, pinot blanc and a chardonnay.
These will be available at the Nk’Mip cellars’ wine shop, discerning restaurants and the twelve VQA retail stores located throughout BC.
The winery will have the guidance of two capable vintners. Winemaker Randy Picton said that he was excited about the opportunities in this new setting. He was trained under two University of Davis graduates in the art of wine making.
After taking his diploma for Business Administration at Mount Royal College in Calgary, he completed the Winery Assistant Program at Okanagan University College in Penticton.
In 1997, he was qualified by the Summerland Research Centre as a member of the VQA sensory panel. He will be charged with passing on his knowledge to band members employed by the winery in his art. Thereby preparing the generation for another step on the bands progress forward.
Mr. Picton will be assisted by James “Sam” Baptiste. Sam is a proud, capable man. He is proud of his heritage, his forefathers and his land. His pride is well justified in all three.
His capability has been demonstrated in his position as manager and winegrower at the Inkameep Vineyards since 1982. He has performed with enough skill and with such great results that he has been named to provincial agricultural advisory boards.
His peers have honoured him by naming him to the presidency of their association. He is an accredited viticulturist and proud of the name winegrower.
“Wine makers only preserve what the winegrowers tend and care for all year,” he asserts. Holding a hearty bunch of grapes in his hand he said, “This is what it’s all about.” The winery will surely produce spectacular wine with these two working together.
The task of welcoming visitors will fall on the shoulders of Donna Faigaux, Hospitality Manager. She is a five-year veteran of the sales division of Vincor International, Atlas Wine Merchants. She too expressed her excitement in her new challenge and what she calls Nk’Mip dynamite wines.
In addition to overseeing the wine retail shop, tasting and touring programs she will act as liaison between the Band and Vincor. In her spare time she will work with the winery’s sales agents.
She brings to this position great enthusiasm and, besides her five years with Atlas, experience as president of the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society, position she was elected to in 2001 having been a board member for four years. She also is a director on the BC Wine board information Centre Board.
I noticed the quiet pride and assurance felt by all I met and spoke to. Darren Baptiste, a young man working on the finishing touches to the winery when I visited one morning, told me that he is looking forward to a good job some where in the wine industry.
He told me that he and another young man, Jason Baptiste, will be training as winemakers, at the end of their apprenticeship one will remain with the Cellars and one will seek employment elsewhere.
He was sure that he will have a good future no matter what happened.
I wish all our young people had that assurance. I am sure that Darren will do well if the informative tour he gave me is any indication. He reminded me that much of this economic growth that feeds this pride is because of the efforts of the Chief Clarence Louie. All I spoke to assured that all who wished to work could work.
I spoke of the fact that there were two openings to celebrate on the ninth. The temporary home of the Nk’Mip Desert and Heritage Centre was opened. The Centre is multi-tasking under the guidance of Brenda Baptiste, a nurse, who oversees the operation of a tract of land that is first dedicated to maintaining the existence of the deserts unique plants and animals.
There are twenty-three species present on the site that are at high risk or exist only there. These include the Western Rattlesnake, Bighorn Sheep, Arrow-leaf, Bitterroot and Antelope Brush. Bear and deer are also present. The Centre will only plant seeds from the site to protect against possible contamination from foreign plants.
The Centre promotes respect and understanding of the Osoyoos Band’s history and culture. One offshoot of this goal has been projects that uncovered aspects of the Bands past poorly understood or forgotten. They have been returned to the People memories and will again live.
When you visit make sure you hear the story of the Residence Children. Visitors may visit daily from May to October and see many of the sights traveling the 1.4 kilometres of wheelchair accessible interpretive trails.
One of the reasons I stressed Mrs. Baptiste’s standing as a nurse is the rattlesnake population on site. It really is nothing to fear but is a serious concern to a group of wildlife biologists who are conducting a study, partially funded by the winery and Vincor, of these endangered reptiles.
This project is trying to find out about the snakes behaviour and survival in the area. To this end they are implanting four rattlesnakes with radio transmitters to track their movements. The local vet took special training to perform the operation.
Chief Clarence Louie said, “Our two new business ventures will provide added opportunities for our band members, breaking the cycle of financial dependency and moving us closer to our goal of self determined economic success.”
There now exist ten corporations involved in tourism, recreation, agriculture, construction, forestry, retail, and now wine. The winery is the second phase of a twenty five million Nk’mip project that includes a pro level golf course that I am assured will see amateur if not professional tournaments, an all season RV park, the Desert and Heritage Centre and an Inn and conference centre fronting the Lake Osoyoos.