Canadian natives try hand at wine-making

An aboriginal tribe in western Canada's arid Okanogan Valley is on the cusp of realizing a decades-old dream: becoming North America's first native winemakers.

On the shores of Lake Osoyoos, near the border between British Columbia and the US state of Washington, the sun is scorching hot, the nights are cool and the soil is dry - perfect conditions for growing wine grapes.

Canadians have been producing Riesling, pinot noir and cabernet varieties here - one of the country's two main viticulture regions - for 40 years.

Some 15 percent of grapes produced in the province of British Columbia come from thousands of acres (hectares) of land belonging to the Osoyoos Indians.

The tribe also boasts the only winery in North America managed by aboriginals: the Nk'Mip Cellars.

Justin Hall has been assistant winemaker at the vineyard since 2004, and is now set to become the tribe's first full-fledged winemaker.

"My first concern is obviously not to just become a winemaker, but to be the first aboriginal winemaker, or the first in North America ... (to) bring some pride to the Osoyoos Indian Band," Hall said.

The tribe has been involved in wine-making since 1968 by growing grapes, but they longed to own and operate their own estate winery.

In 2002, the dream nearly became a reality, with the creation of the Nk'Mip wine cellar. But one element was still missing: none of the tribe members had the expertise to produce their own wine so they could not yet claim to be a wholly-owned and operated Indian winery.

To bring the dream to fruition, they looked to the industry heavyweight, Canadian wine producer Vincor - with which the tribe is a majority shareholder in a joint venture - and hired oenologist Randy Picton.

"When I first started, the Osoyoos Indian Band wanted to have me step in eventually as a winemaker, and be able to run our own business in that sense," Hall said.

- A 40-year-old dream -

In the meantime, interest in the native winery took off. In 2010, 216,000 bottles of wine were sold for an average of CAN$17 (US$17.20) each to 79,000 tourists who visited.

The band council and chief Clarence Louie initially devised the winery plan in order to create employment for its 430 members.

The band manages several businesses with multi-million-dollar budgets and administers its own health, social, educational and municipal services on its 32,000 acres (12,950 hectares).

"We advertise and promote our uniqueness," Louie said. "Our native heritage and culture have to be part of every one of our projects."

To attract tourists, the chief did not stop there. Nk'Mip (which in Okanogan means 'where the stream flows into the lake') also boasts a four-star resort hotel and golf course, as well as a new cultural centre.

Hotel guests are welcomed to the Indian lands by a sculpture of a native warrior saddling a mustang and an ornamental piragua (canoe) in the cellar.

On the Osoyoos reserve, unemployment is nearly non-existent - in stark contrast to rampant unemployment and few economic opportunities on many other reserves throughout Canada.

The band's businesses employ up to 2,000 people from the reserve and neighboring communities during the peak summer tourism season. Band members also receive dividends from these booming businesses.

Hall's dream will soon be realized. Nk'Mip's first vintage with his stamp on it, now aging in oak barrels, will be available to drink next year.

Lindsay Kelm of the British Columbia Wine Institute says while the launch will not have any particular impact on the sector, "diversity is good for the industry."

Kelm added that Hall had a solid reputation among local growers and winemakers, and that she expects his first batch of wine to be "exceptional."

Brian Moffatt, the cellar's retail supervisor, said Hall had a bright future, noting: "The profession is like wine - you get better with age."

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