Sam Baptiste, the band chief and president of Nk’ Mip vineyards winery, wore many hats before venturing into grape farming. But now the a little more than 50-year-old Osooyos First Nations band member runs the first aboriginal vitivinicultural operation in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. The lush 100 Km long valley bisects the mountainous landscape of Canada’s western most province, and stretches north of the 49th parallel all the way up to Kamloops.
The region is tiny by world standards with 2000 hectares under vines, of which 25 percent are on Indian land, and coincidentally producing the best fruit.
The land this Salish tribe occupied since 1870’s can be best described as marginal scrub, rocky, and too dry for anything but grapes.
It is actually a desert, and without irrigation vines would simply succumb. Savvy Sam Baptiste who employs deficit water management techniques, stressing the vines before watering, has turned even this handicap to an advantage. This encourages roots to delve deeper in search of moisture, and in the process, produce minerally rich grapes much favoured by knowledgeable wine makers.
Before starting to grow grapes the Nk’ Mip (Inkemeep) were trading people; they fished and hunted for sustenance.
Sam Baptiste was the first to recognize the potential of the land. He uprooted the old Chancellor and Marechal Foch vines and planted vitis vinifera vines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, knowing that summer temperatures climb to 50 degrees C and winters are relatively mild.
The climate being dry, requires minimal spraying, and application of fungicides and pesticides.
At first vinifera vines failed to take root due to an inappropriate clonal selection. and lack of proper care. Soon both problems were solved, and now the Nk’ Mip fruit is of such high quality that many fine B. C wineries line up to buy their grapes.
When Ontario-based Inniskillin established a winery in Osoyoos in 1993, D. Ziraldo and K. Kaiser decided to buy their fruit from Nk’ Mip. Inniskillin makes and markets a few single-vineyard wines with special mention of Nk’ Mip land on the label.
The vineyards provide jobs for band members, and they work conscientiously with one objective only – to grow premium quality grapes.
So impressed were Vincor managers (the largest wine organization in Canada and which now also owns Inniskillin, Sumac Ridge estate Winery, Howell Mountain Winery, Hogue Cellars in Washington, R H Phillips in California and Goundrey in Australia), that they decided to establish a 500 acre vineyard on Nk’ Mip land with a land-lease agreement that will provide the band with a substantial annual income. Although Sam Baptiste was against the agreement, the band council over ruled him. He wanted to expand the vineyards and sell the fruit which could have resulted in more long-term profits.
Regardless, he contracted the expertise of Vincor scientists to produce wine for the band with Indian grown fruit. Vincor is a 49 percent participant and shared the cost of a 18 000 ft2 winery located on site.
Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay were first custom-crushed for the band by a neighbouring winery. From now one, every vintage will be vinted in-house.
Most outsiders think of aboriginals as warriors and fierce fighters. What they fail to understand is that Indians can be excellent farmers, given the opportunity. They understand the land and nature intuitively; they possess intimate relations with the land and treat nature differently to western cultures. They regard humans as part of nature and not the dominant species with control over nature and natural phenomena.
The first Nk’ Mip wines tasted displayed fine varietal character, taste, and depth for fruit originating from young vineyards.
Next time you come across an Nk’ Mip wine, grab it. You will be impressed.
NOTE: Today, the band chief is Clarence Luoie