Justin Hall remembers getting a surprisingly dismissive reaction from his 81-year-old grandmother when he announced, upon graduating from wine studies at Lincoln University in New Zealand eight years ago, that he'd been promoted to a significant position at Nk'Mip Cellars in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. "I said, 'I'm possibly the first aboriginal winemaker in the world,'" he recalls. "And she's looking at me real funny, with her head tilted sideways, kind of like how a dog turns its head, and says, 'Your grandpa was making wine long before you were born.'"
Perhaps – but not on a professional level. Hall says the ancestral potation would have been of the backwoods variety, based on ignoble wild vines growing on the Osoyoos Indian Band reserve, where Hall grew up and where Nk'Mip is situated. Those grapes stand in contrast to the quality merlot, chardonnay and other domesticated European varieties that now carpet the local desert landscape just north of the Washington-state border. "It would have been terrible wine, I'm more than certain," he says with a hearty chuckle.
A month ago, Hall received another promotion, moving from assistant vintner to full-fledged winemaker, continuing to work with Randy Picton, the non-native veteran who retains title of senior winemaker at North America's first aboriginal-owned winery.
Granny's indifference aside, Hall's progress in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by people of European descent is a point of pride for many in the small Osoyoos band. Its members have been labouring with entrepreneurial flair to re-emerge from a cultural and economic decline that more or less began around the time of Canadian Confederation.
"We're all very proud of him, that he took it upon himself to take the job and to leave the reserve and leave the territory, leave Canada to go to Australia, to New Zealand, and to get properly trained," says Osoyoos Indian Band leader Chief Clarence Louie. "That's rare."
What has become a self-proclaimed "dream job" for Hall started in 2004 as a way to keep busy after summer business wound down on the nearby aboriginal-owned golf course, where he'd earn his summer living. "I must have been bothering [Picton] for at least three months," Hall says. "I phoned him every week, 'Hey, is there a job?'" Persistence paid off and Hall was called in to perform grunt work, dragging hoses around to transfer wine between tanks. "By Thursday or Friday that same week, I was phoning in to the local college to ask about wine programs."
Two years of night school at Okanagan College was eventually followed by a postgraduate diploma in enology and viticulture in New Zealand as well as a brief working stint at Goundrey winery in Australia. Somewhere in the middle, Hall found time to get over his initial distaste for the product he'd be making.
"I tried some merlot upstairs and spit it out," he recalled of his first day on the job. "I was, like, 'That's terrible!'" A valiant re-try of the bitingly tannic red the following day only confirmed his initial assessment. "I was, like, 'It's still terrible!'" Eventually, a much more pleasant encounter with a smooth, oaky chardonnay began to offer hope.
The young man's taste eventually came around with flying colours, his boss is pleased to report. "Our palates are very, very well-aligned," Picton says. "We will both taste through a flight of wines and nine times out of 10 we're going to pick the same wine as our favourite, and for similar reasons."
In his new post, Hall will oversee production of all seven whites in the portfolio, beginning with the 2017 vintage, including two chardonnays and a new Bordeaux-style union of sauvignon blanc and sémillon to be called Mer'r'iym, an aboriginal word for "marriage."
Though small, with annual output of 18,000 cases, Nk'Mip (pronounced "inkameep") has garnered more than its share of accolades, most recently named 2016 Canadian winery of the year at the Canadian-based InterVin International Wine Awards. Founded 15 years ago, the winery is part of a development that includes the Spirit Ridge hotel and spa and the Sonora Dunes Golf Course. They are among several aboriginal-run enterprises on the 13,000-hectare, 140-year-old reserve that have, under Louie's 30-year leadership, established an enviably high level of employment and financial independence for the 520-member band.
All of the activity is situated in one of the hottest and driest pockets in Canada, featuring a landscape of sagebrush and sun-scorched mountains that resembles the backdrop of a Wild West movie. Most of the band's 600 hectares of vineyard are leased to such wineries as Mission Hill, Burrowing Owl and Jackson-Triggs, with about 120 hectares reserved for Nk'Mip.
Hall is upbeat about life on "the Rez." "I had a pretty good life, it wasn't terrible," he says. "I got to run around as a kid. We hunted and fished on the property. I shot my first deer when I was seven. And it wasn't like it was my first shot, either. I was proficient in shooting by that time."
Life wasn't always so sweet for many, he allows. His father and several of his father's siblings were shipped to residential schools and experienced extreme poverty. (His mother, of Scottish descent, came from Quebec.) "Osoyoos was just nothing back then," he says.
And Hall, who attended school off the reserve, does recall fear and prejudice even among his young classmates. "Even when I was a kid, people didn't want to come to the reserve for birthday parties or whatever," he says. He proudly notes that the winery and resort, which have become well-known tourist destinations, have been instrumental in effecting change. "People are coming to the Okanagan just to come to our reserve," he says "They don't come here to go into the town of Osoyoos, they're coming to our reserve, to Nk'Mip cellars, to Spirit Ridge. They're travelling from Vancouver, from Calgary. Europeans are coming here. They're coming to see us."
Hall, who has two sons, aged 10 and 14, and recently became engaged to a woman in the restaurant-wine-sales business, says he's generally not one for celebrating, even his own birthday, but might open a bottle of his finer wine on July 1 and drink a toast to "shaking hands" with non-aboriginal organizations and "making deals" in the future.
For his part, Chief Louie, who this year was named to the Order of Canada, views the milestone with mixed emotions. Colonization inflicted much harm on the native Okanagan communities, he notes. "Our language is on the critical list. A lot of our people have suffered through residential schools. Broken treaties need to be fixed. There's some unfinished business with Canada," he says. "I'll clap my hands once but not much after that."
And then he adds: "But stories like Justin Hall are good stories that should be told on Canada's 150th."
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