Springtime in wine country: exploring B.C. through tastings, Indian food, and Indigenous art and culture

A girls' weekend can cover a lot of territory in and around Osoyoos

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      Vineyard hopping, spa time, and dining: when a friend and I had the chance to bolt from the city for a girls’ weekend in the Okanagan, we planned to drink wine, eat well, and unwind.

      We did all that and more, hiking into the very heart of the area’s First Nations history.

      Between Ocean Wise seafood and wine-and-cheese pairings, we left with a deeper understanding of the Okanagan Nation’s Osoyoos Indian Band, the people who have called the lake-meets-desert landscape home for millennia.

      Formerly known as McIntyre Bluff, nʕaylintn (pronounced ny-lin-tn) is a cultural site rich in Indigenous history.
      Gail Johnson.

      Our discovery began with a hike to the top of nʕaylintn (pronounced ny-lin-tn), a cultural site rich in Indigenous history and a place of worship for the Osoyoos First Nations. Formerly known as McIntyre Bluff, named after a local settler, the towering chunk of metamorphic rock is a regional landmark. From a distance, its sheer basalt face resembles a human profile, leading some to call it Indian Head.

      Nʕaylintn means “storyteller” in the Okanagan language of nsyilxcen. According to local tradition, this monolithic profile tells stories that include those of battles fought there with invading bands to the North, reminding people that the OIB is distinct from other First Nations communities in the region.

      The bluff’s 10-kilometre gradually ascending hike starts at Covert Farms Family Estate in nearby Oliver. (Covert isn’t just another intriguing name but also the owner-family’s surname.) The organic farm and winery lets people park on-site to access the trailhead, which is clearly marked beyond rows and rows of grapevines and fruit trees.

      Part of the view from the top of nʕaylintn, a 10-kilometre round-trip hike.
      Gail Johnson.

      Springtime is a great time for this moderately challenging journey, which takes about three hours round-trip, especially if you’re fair or the type who feels like fainting in desert heat. On the way to the top, you pass wild yellow balsamroot flowers, antelope brush, protected grasslands, and fragrant, eucalyptus-hued sagebrush. Reflecting its fringe of pine, flowering shrubs, and tall grasses, Rattlesnake Lake is mirrorlike.

      Placing your own stone atop a cairn at the exposed peak is like a spiritual medal for completing the climb, the sudden wind whirling around you as you take in the view beneath: vineyards, orchards, lake, river, valley, sky. You can imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago, when people on horseback would have gazed over this same magnificent cliff, watching the moon wax and wane, seeing the sun arc across the sky as they guarded their families and fended off enemies—it’s been said that some fell to their deaths from the top.

      What's in a name?

      Place names are central to the historical and cultural identity of the Osoyoos Indian Band.

      Take sw̓ iw̓ s Provincial Park. In 2015, the campground and archaeological and cultural-heritage site, formerly known as Haynes Point Park, officially took the name from band’s nsyilxcen language. Pronounced swee-yous, it means “place where it is shallow or narrow in the middle of the lake”, referring to the spot where the OIB’s ancestors used to cross Osoyoos Lake by foot or horse.

      What was known for a time as Okanagan Falls Park is now sx̌wəx̌wnitkw Provincial Park. The name, pronounced s-wuh-wuneet-kw, means “little falls”, signifying a connection to the historic Kettle Falls in Washington state (which are known as “big falls” in the nsyilxcen language). Together, the falls were two of the most important fishing sites in the Okanagan Nation’s traditional territory.

      “We really wanted to make sure people who visit our region understand where it is that they are; our province has 36 different Nations,” says OIB member Derek Bryson, marketing director of Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre (which is built into a hillside and features indoor and outdoor interactive exhibits). “We’re not Shuswap and we’re not Haida. It’s about maintaining a sense of who you are and having pride in who you are.”

      Indigenous winery in a desert land

      The OIB owns 32,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert landscape and several businesses in the region, including Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre and Nk’Mip Cellars, the first First Nations-owned and -operated winery in North America. It’s also home to the world’s first Indigenous winemaker, Justin Hall, who works closely with senior winemaker Randy Picton. (Pronounced in-ka-meep, “Nk’Mip” translates to “bottomland”, referring to its location the southern end of the Osoyoos reservation, which was established in 1877.) 

      In 2016, Nk’Mip was named Intervin Canadian Winery of the Year. Having partnered with Arterra Wines Canada, it has won multiple other awards over the years. Its 2016 Nk’Mip Cellars QwAM QwMT Chardonnay won gold at Chardonnay du Monde.

      Among the Indigenous artwork throughout Nk'Mip Cellars are the steel figures by "Smoker" Virgil Marchand in a traditional canoe.
      Gail Johnson.

      One way to experience the winery is the Perfect Union Wine and Cheese Pairing, which introduces people to five local cheeses (like Upper Bench Creamery’s U & Brie) and some of Nk’Mip’s finest wines, including selections from its QwAM QwMT (meaning “excellence”) series (merlot and Riesling ice wine). It’s part of a tour that also reveals the fascinating background of the OIB’s ventures (and the vision of Chief Clarence Louie, an Order of Canada recipient, who’s largely credited for guiding the band to economic success) and showcases Indigenous artwork, including striking steel sculptures by “Smoker” Virgil Marchand. For the guided tasting, you get to gather around a table in an underground private cellar overlooking the winery’s red-barrel room.

      The 90-minute experience whets the appetite for dinner at Mica at adjacent Spirit Ridge, the first Canadian luxury resort to join the Unbound Collection by Hyatt. (The chain has managed the hotel since December 2017, describing Unbound as a “a global collection of unique story-worthy stay experiences”.)

      The property has dramatic views, and Mica’s enormous patio overlooks an outdoor swimming pool, which overlooks sloping vineyards, which overlook Lake Osoyoos, all with rolling hills as a backdrop. Napa Valley? Italy? It’s sometimes hard to believe you’re still in B.C. when your eyes drift over this panorama.

      The view from Mica Restaurant.
      Gail Johnson.

      Mica executive chef Nick Atkins keeps the menu sophisticatedly satisfying. We loved the beet salad with pecans, arugula, truffled honey vinaigrette and goat’s cheese from Salmon Arm’s Happy Days goat dairy and wild B.C. salmon with herbed lemon risotto and crispy kale.

      (Since our getaway, Spirit Ridge Resort has launched a First Nations Package that comes with two nights at the resort, a Land to Legacy Tour for two [which guides people through the vineyards to learn about winemaking followed by tastings], and two passes to Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre [$199 per person].)

      Karma, destiny, Indian food, and fine wine

      If Spirit Ridge makes for a perfect jumping-off point to explore the dozens of other wineries in the Osoyoos-Oliver region, Kismet Estate Winery is a notable one.

      Sukhwinder Dhaliwal first came to Canada in 1989 from Rama, India, with a borrowed $5 in his pocket. His brother, Balwinder, joined him shortly thereafter, the siblings parlaying their knowledge of rice farming into grape-growing. They’ve become some of the top growers in the region, having accumulated 350 acres, their fruit used in bottles that win awards year after year.

      But why stop at grapes? The family launched the winery in 2013, kismet being the Sanskrit word for destiny.

      Masala Bistro overlooks Kismet Estate Winery vineyards.
      Gail Johnson.

      They still sell their grapes to some of the area’s top winemakers but keep about 10 percent of the fruit for their own production. Kismet wines have become award-winners in their own right. Some of their bottles take their names from the family’s heritage and story: Moksha, for instance, is derived from an Indian word meaning liberation or resurrection of the soul, driven by the law of karma. Other titles include Lotus and Mantra.

      In response to so many visitors’ and locals’ inquiries over the years, the Dhaliwals began serving authentic Indian cuisine under white tents two summers ago. Their deeply flavourful, colourful comfort food was a hit, so they took the leap and last year opened the Masala Bistro, complete with a bell-shaped clay tandoor oven and indoor and outdoor seating.

      Masala Bistro at Kismet Estate Winery serves authentic Indian food, including crab pakoras.
      Gail Johnson

      Pani puri chaat is a roadside snack with chickpeas, potato chunks, and crispy fried bread with tamarind sauce; mushrooms marinated in a sauce with chilis, scallions, Indian spices, and bell peppers are served on a fluffy bed of rice. Butter chicken, lamb vindaloo, chickpea masala with gooseberries, chingari malai curry with prawns and coconut milk… The menu suggests wine pairings, like crab pakoras with Kismet’s Infinity Rose or butter chicken with its full-bodied Karma. This is sublime yet home-y cuisine, a taste of authentic India while overlooking some of the finest vineyards in the Okanagan.