The world of wine and winemaking can sometimes feel exclusionary and inaccessible, even though at its core, the dinner table staple has been connecting people to each other and the land as far back as 9000 BCE.
Justin Hall and his Band’s Nk’Mip Cellars are leading a new era in winemaking while also reconnecting wine lovers to these roots. As North America’s first Indigenous winery, Nk’Mip (pronounced In-Ka-meep) is owned and operated by the Osoyoos Indian Brand and the Osoyoos culture is woven throughout.
North America’s first Indigenous winemaker
Justin Hall himself is the first Indigenous winemaker in North America, and oversees Nk’Mip’s entire wine making process, from grape harvesting through bottling. His own trajectory to his present role is closely intertwined with the winery’s history, and the Osoyoos Indian Brand, of which he is an Elder.
While the winery has been operating for some 50 years, and is part owned by Arterra Wines Canada today, the Band maintains majority ownership, and ensures its members are involved throughout.
They, and winery operators, have also invested in Justin and his growth, from cellar hand in 2004 when he first joined Nk’Mip, to where he is today, overseeing the cellar’s entire wine production.
From cellar hand to estate winemaker
From those very first days, Justin knew winemaking was something he wanted to pursue more seriously. “By day four [at that first job], I had signed up at the local college in Penticton… I met some friends. We started doing wine tastings on our own, studying wine, and that was it,” he laughs.
Justin went on to hone his craft further in Australia and New Zealand’s Lincoln University. And while he did not have the traditional academic background of his classmates, he had years of hands-on experience that allowed him to bridge what he learned out in the vineyards with theory.
Osoyoos, the sweet-smelling place
Today, Justin has brought back that understanding to Nk’Mip. Sitting on 300 acres of the hottest and driest part of Canada, in the south end of the Okanagan valley (Oliver, BC, specifically), the winery is nestled amidst the Osoyoos Desert – the northernmost tip of the Sonoran Desert.
The cellar produces an average of 18,000 cases annually (that’s 216,000 bottles, if you’re wondering). And while only available in Western Canada, Nk’Mip has won awards internationally. “People from Germany ask about our little intimate cellar, and then they start to realize, ‘Oh, what does it mean? And what is it about?’”
Translating to “bottomland” in English, Nk’Mip’s climate and soil (known as terroir in sommelier-speak) are nestled amid time-weathered mountains, sage and other desert flora, mirrored lakes and an otherwise-arid landscape, giving Nk’Mip wines their unique characteristics.
“Have you ever lifted up a big pile of leaves and you smell the black earth underneath? It smells almost sweet,” says Justin. Herbaceous sage, too, is another note permeating the air.
When Justin was asked to describe how these characteristics influence Nk’Mip wines, he consulted with his Elders on what word in the Okanagan language might best capture that local essence (wine connoisseurs refer to this quality with the French word “garrigue”).
The answer was Sín iʔ tmxʷulaxʷ (pronounced sin eet tim whoo lough), which means “sweet smelling place,” referring to the natural aromas that various cycles of the earth produce. “And I thought it was a perfect example of what we’re trying to get across.” It’s a nod to the fertile land the vineyards sit on, and the grapes they yield.
From wine names to viticulture
The Band’s culture seeps into Nk’Mip in other ways too – starting with the names on the bottles.
It’s premium table wines are named Qwam Qwmt (pronounced kw-em kw-empt), translating to “achieving excellence.”
Justin explains that the winery was asked to come up with a name that reflects perfection. “Well, there is no such word [in the Okanagan language]. Nothing in nature is perfect. It’s always flawed, ever so slightly. So Qwam Qwmt is achieving excellence. It’s getting to the best that you can, but not actually being perfect.” This wine is produced in very limited quantities and is deemed worthy of this title. “I’m not afraid to show that against any wine in the world,” says Justin.
Mer’r’iym, on the other hand is the word for “marriage” and the perfect name for a wine that represents the union of Nk’Mip’s Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec.
These traditions dig deeper too. Some 500 Osoyoos Indian Brand members watch over this region, ensuring their practices remain as sustainable as possible. “We are protectors of the land, if you will, and I’ve always believed that it should be left in a better place than when we arrived,” says Justin.
“The last thing I want to do is go out and nuke all the bugs that are out there and just create a sterile, stagnant environment where there’s nothing alive other than the grapes, but that doesn’t make good wine. What makes good wine is good microflora. You want the bacteria in the soil to thrive. You want the spiders,” he adds. “So when you find spiders, you know you’re doing something fairly right.”
What an estate winemaker looks for in a wine
When it comes to what’s in the bottle, Justin has a few considerations before reaching for that perfect one.
“Depends on the day, and it depends who I am with,” he says. “What I am looking for in a great wine is texture. Balance is super key. You always want to have a wine with balance [acidity, sweetness and viscosity]. There’s nothing worse than having something that’s sticking out – it’s what they would call ‘rough edges.’ Especially with tannins or acidity, you get these rough edges where the wine isn’t quite silky or it doesn’t roll in your mouth quite like rolling in a glass. Now, having that said, I can almost go the opposite direction,” adding, “Sometimes you’re just looking for a little bit more complexity.”
But at the core of it, for Justin, wine is also about community. “You know, enjoying wine with friends and food and sitting down and talking. It’s not just ‘how’s the weather outside?’ It’s not small chat. Getting out and actually understanding somebody… like the older ways where we actually sat down and you met friends face-to-face, enjoying a bottle of wine. That makes all the difference in the world.”
Visitors can also experience Nk’Mip themselves in-person and can stay at the Band’s Spirit Ridge Resort (though be forewarned, the lodge books up to a year in advance).
In the meantime, you can find Nk’Mip wines through Great Estates Okanagan and through specialty retailers in BC and Alberta.