As I planned a personal summer trip to British Columbia‘s beautiful Okanagan, I stumbled upon the Indigenous World Winery. Intrigued about the connection between a winery and the indigenous, my quest for more information began. The winery is relatively new to the Okanagan wine scene. Robert Louie and his wife Bernice, sole proprietors, opened the winery in 2016. It is located on Westbank First Nations, which is the wealthiest nation in Canada. The wealth of the nation is also a relatively new development. Within the last 20 years, due to the leadership of Louie while he was Chief, Westbank became economically prosperous.
I contacted the winery and they connected me with representative and wine expert, Ryan Widdup who agreed to teach me about the history of the land, people and the winery. Recognizing that the winery made provision for me, I felt it was important to honor indigenous protocol of reciprocity. My visit there began with gifting the winery tobacco plants in exchange for the knowledge they would share.
Widdup explained that initially opening the winery was met with some resistance, because of the negative historical associations of the indigenous and alcohol. However, the Louie’s are passionate about the culture of indigenous people, specifically their descendants the Sylix people. With the rise of interest about indigenous culture, they recognized that knowledge about the diversity of indigenous culture in BC was required. Often when people think about the indigenous culture in British Columbia, they think of cultural elements of the coastal people. Vibrant hand carved artistic designs of the towering totems, or the hand knitted sweaters of the Coast Salish come to mind. While the culture of the coastal people of British Columbia is beautiful and intriguing, most people are unaware of the diversity of indigenous culture of BC. There are 198 diverse groups of First Nations, Métis and Inuk people in British Columbia, totaling 200, 000 people!
A vision was born, the Louie’s would leverage the increase in interest in Okanagan wine to draw people into a space that would highlight the indigenous culture of the central Okanagan. Ryan indicated while the museum in Westbank is a phenomenal learning space to acquire information, it gets average traffic of approximately 20 people a day, while the winery boasts 200 or more visitors a day.
Outside the winery has erected several tipis as landmarks. Ryan indicated that the tipi is a structure used by people of the plains. In the central Okanagan, Quinzhees were used. The winery has future plans to build a quinzhee on their property. Inside the winery, replica pictographs of indigenous carvings from the area are proudly on display. The gift shop boasts handmade items from indigenous crafts people. I purchased a bottle of Wabanaki barrel-aged maple syrup, handmade by indigenous women from Tobique First Nations in New Brunswick. They continue to search out gift items crafted by people of the interior.
Indigenous cultures recognize and share the importance of women as life givers. To honour this belief, the wines are named with the indigenous names of Louie’s daughters and wife. All of the wines I tasted were delicious, but my favourite is La’p Cheet, a sparkling rose. In Sylix it means, ‘light sparkling off the water’ which is the perfect description for how the wine tastes! Additionally, the wine labels are adorned with pictures of animals important in indigenous culture.
Stewardship of the land is significant to the Louie’s. Doing their part to honour and protect the land in the Okanagan is critically important to them. Much of the land has been developed into vineyards and fruit orchards because the climate is a perfect fit to grow these crops. The rise in popularity of Okanagan wine and tourism has benefited the people of the Okanagan. Indigenous teachings of reciprocity include the responsibility of sustaining the land because it sustains us. Robert is the chair of the National Land Advisory council, and internationally renowned speaker, working in countless ways to protect the land. While I was at the winery, Louie was in Chile speaking about land stewardship.
My guide, and wine expert also explained that grapes are a product of the land, in essence, you can taste the land in the grapes. That is why from year to year, as climate changes the land, the taste of the grapes will change. He said there are few natural foods that compare to this with the exception of honey.
In addition to serving delicious wines produced from locally grown grapes, the winery’s Red Fox Club restaurant, serves up a modern take on traditional indigenous foods. Baked Duck, smoked salmon, bannock, and local produce line the menu. I thoroughly enjoyed the Grilled Elk Flank Dip sandwich.
The winery practices reciprocity, the practice of indigenous protocol. Medicine pouches of tobacco are sometimes offered and are accompanied by a teaching about what it is for and how to use it.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the winery, and I am looking forward to visiting again and hearing about its continued growth and success. If you are heading to the Okanagan, and want to enjoy one of the most beautiful properties in Westbank British Columbia, and learn about indigenous culture, it is definitely a must visit!