OSOYOOS, British Columbia - The Chief has heard all of the criticism before.
"We caught flack, even from our own people, with the history of alcohol abuse, what are we doing selling alcohol?" Clarence Louie rhetorically asked about his band's winery.
Quickly establishing itself for producing award-winning vintages, Nk'Mip (pronounced in-ka-meep) is the first Aboriginal owned and operated wine cellars in North America. Taking advantage of its location in the heart of Canada's only desert in the Okanagan region of south-central British Columbia, the Osoyoos First Nations has been in the grape growing business for more than three decades though it was only in 2002 when the band obtained the private capital, loans and federal grants to open the $5 million enterprise. ($3.5 million U.S.)
"Any grape grower would see this as a natural progession of the dreams and aspirations of having their own winery," said Louie who has been Osoyoos' Chief since 1985. "Where you're at determines the type of business you're going to get into and this is Canada's best wine producing area."
Louie acknowledges part of the band's present-day success is a result of the historical land allotment. Within the band's 32,000 contiguous acres of the property that's privately, owned it's in the middle of the reserve, while the band collectively retained large tracts. Once the Okanagan region became developed a half-century ago, the Osoyoos had a greater public visibility with their numerous rows of grapevines that surrounded the perimeter of the property and which bordered the highways.
Starting in 1968, the band has cultivated and grown grapes and continues to own and manage 245 acres. Concurrently, another 1,000 acres are leased to Vincor International at $500 - $700 per acre. Louie said by comparison, land rented for the production of hay earns one-tenth that amount.
This association with a global wine distributor has granted Nk'Mip's product instant credibility and access into a competitive market. However, marketing skills or a name on the bottle's label can only go so far. Enter Randy Picton, Nk'Mip's winemaker who previously worked in Kelowna.
Already familiar with the region's climate and agriculture, Picton has been excited about his involvement with a winery from its infancy. Armed with an array of new equipment and technology, Nk'Mip has started to distinguish itself from the several other wineries in both the Okanagan and the Pacific Northwest.
Operating with just one 8,000-liter press (2,100 gallons), Picton stated this machine offers a gentler handling of the grape. As whole clusters, including the stems, are placed into the press, a higher quality of juice is obtained and that taste is noticeable among wine connoisseurs.
"This process takes us twice as long but to me, if we get a difference in quality, it's only our labor," said Picton. He also mentioned other steps in production at Nk'Mip that give the winery a competitive edge including minimizing the amount of contact with the grapes' skins and seeds, which contain bitter compounds, when extracting the juice.
With such care in the development of the winery's first bottles, the effort won immediate praise. At last year's Okanagan Wine Festival, the 2002 Chardonnay from the Qwam Qwmt selection (translated to mean "to achieve excellence") obtained a gold medal in Nk'Mip's only entry and later earned a second gold at the regional Wine Press Northwest that pitted the best wines from several states and British Columbia.
Venturing away from traditional vintages, Nk'Mip is now producing ice wines in an attempt to become one of only a handful of wineries globally that has the location to create this sweetened dessert wine. As temperatures must dip below 17 degrees when the grapes are picked, only Canada and Germany are known for this newly-established market.
So, on midnight Jan. 3 when the mercury had dipped, Picton and his crew were out harvesting the frozen crop. What makes these grapes taste differently is there is less juice extraction from the fruit, because the water has evaporated and the sugar content is concentrated into what little liquid remains in the hardened grape.
Coupled with the low supply of ice wine and few cellars making the product, vineyards take a risk by leaving a portion of their crop out for several months because of the chance such fruit may never be picked or the temperatures might never get so cold. This explains why the retail price of a bottle is in the $50 range.
"The combination of flavors are incredible with a sugar and acid balance that gives your palate a lot to enjoy," said Picton about how easy this wine is to drink.
Nk'Mip is part of the larger economic package constructed by the Osoyoos in this summer destination area. With an 18-hole championship golf course in the neighboring town of Oliver (also on reserve land), the band is in the midst of a $25 million ($18 million U.S.) economic development project in order to meet the needs of an area that swells tenfold when the temperatures are constantly in the 90s with a dry heat. Already built is the Desert & Heritage Centre and other plans include a conference center, an all-season RV park and a smaller nine-hole golf course.
While the wines have started to make a name for the winery, Nk'Mip distinguishes itself from the other cellars in the vicinity by promoting the Osoyoos First Nations. Hospitality Manager Donna Faigaux described the value-added packages offered on the reserve that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. In addition to wine tasting tours throughout the year, Nk'Mip prepares feastivals, with four and five-course meals incorporating Aboriginal fare and weekly salmon barbeques in August when song and dance of the Okanagan Nation are also showcased.
"Tourists are looking for something different to do and this combines the cultural experience with a wine tasting tour," said Faigaux.
Chief Louie remains cognizant of the image alcohol has and points out that while Nk'Mip is visibly an Aboriginal business, some aspects of the culture, such as sage, is not permitted on the property. Still, he challenged the stereotype of Indians and booze and said the problem of alcoholism is reduced, not heightened, with the presence of the winery.
"You could take all the vineyards off the reserve and the alcoholism rate would go up especially because you'd take away these high-paying jobs," Louie emphatically stated.
For a band with 370 members, there are hundreds of seasonal jobs once the grapes have to be harvested and there are a couple dozen full time jobs for band members in the various activities related to wine production. Louie even boasts the Osoyoos have generated more revenue for the past eight years than they have received from federal payments from Ottawa.
"We're one of the rare tribes to be self-sufficient without a casino and we should have zero unemployment."
Now that there are award-winning wines to offer, future goals of Nk'Mip include broadening its sales, especially to other Aboriginal entities and functions, including Stateside where the U.S. border is only two miles from the reserve.