Long before there were grape vines, resource industries and sun seekers populating the Okanagan Valley, there were the Syilx people. Around 3,000 years ago, as many as 12,000 Indigenous people lived in the area, hunting, fishing and gathering plants for food and medicine, and moving throughout the valley as the seasons changed.
After the gold rush of 1858 came the onset of agriculture, with fruit orchards and ranches slowly transforming the landscape, as well as the introduction of imported grape vines, leading to the booming wine culture we know the region for today.
As a child, Robert Louie worked in the vineyards and vegetable gardens of his neighbours. The former chief of the Westbank First Nation, whose childhood home on the reserve lacked both running water and electricity, recalls wondering why his family wasn’t growing grapes themselves.
“My families have always worked on the land and have been historically very, very poor, but very rich in the culture and the language and the respect of the land,” he says. “Going into the vineyards, planting the vineyards for other people, I always had the thought, ‘Why am I working for somebody else? Why can’t we start our own business? Why do we have to report to someone else and always be poor?’”
In 2016, after decades spent in business and various leadership positions, Robert and his wife, Bernice, saw the realization of this dream: They opened Indigenous World Winery, Canada’s first wholly Indigenous-owned winery, on the reserve they both called home.
From wine labels that carry traditional Syilx family names and Indigenous artworks, to seasonal and foraged fare at the Red Fox Club restaurant, to the immensely popular spirit charms in the winery gift shop, every detail of the experience has been curated to incorporate Indigenous culture with the world of wine.
Ponder the thousands of years of history in wines like the Hee-Hee-Tel-Kin blends—named in honour of the Louies’ youngest son, and apprentice winemaker, Trenton. Hee-Hee-Tel-Kin, a First Nations name that has been passed down for generations, translates into “a mystical high-country stag with large antlers.” Simo, the winery’s flagship wine, means “connected to the land,” and is the Syilx name given to Robert Louie by his grandmother. And the winery’s first two sparkling wines, La’p Cheet, meaning “the shimmer of light on a stream,” and Ho-We-Nam Ho-We-Nem, meaning “hummingbird,” were named for their daughters, Cassandra and Kassina, respectively.
One of the winery’s most anticipated releases is its next sparkling. The third in the series named for the women of the Louie family, this wine will honour the mother grizzly bear, Bernice, and reveal the story behind her Syilx name.
We’re not here just to be average, we want to excel. It’s having that connection to the land.
“It really makes me feel proud,” Bernice says of seeing their Indigenous history celebrated through the wine. “It hasn’t happened to me since probably my early high school days, but growing up there were people who would try to shame you for being First Nations. And having this, I feel like it just makes us stronger to share the stories.”
And the world is listening. Known for its expressive, boutique, small-batch, single-varietal wines, Indigenous World has won more than 100 awards since its inaugural releases, including Okanagan Winery of the Year at the New York International Wine Festival.
Knowing that alcohol has a fraught history among many First Nations communities, achieving an unimpeachable standard of excellence was a requirement for the Louies before beginning the venture. It’s a mandate that head winemaker Jason Parkes has exceeded, thanks, in part, to his renown for sourcing the best grapes the area has to offer.
“We’re not here just to be average, we want to excel,” says Robert. “It’s having that connection to the land. The Okanagan Valley produces some of the finest wines the world has to offer.”
“Our 2018 Pinot Gris that has just come out is extremely spring-timey,” says Indigenous World sales manager Ryan Widdup. “It’s very tropical, with lots of guava, papaya, passionfruit, citrus and beautiful fresh, exotic fruit flavours. It’s very versatile and I think it’s going to be the best white that we produce this year.”
Indigenous World Winery
2218 Horizon Dr., Kelowna
For more information, visit indigenousworldwinery.com
@ Vitis Magazine