Indigenous World Winery is the brainchild of Robert and Bernice Louie, descendants of the Syilx first peoples who have lived in the Okanagan for generations. Back in 2011, the couple secured 2.5 acres to start a vineyard and joined forces with winemaker Jason Parkes to make wines that could compete at a world level.
“The goal was a big award winner,” explains spokesperson Ryan Widdup. “They wanted to open the doors with some big showpiece red wines.” So while the couple were planting their first vines and building their facility in 2013, Parkes had already been crafting wines for them at a nearby estate winery. “Jason spent a lot of time crafting a small production red called Simo, and in 2015 it won two medals and the first Double Gold Medal a few months before we opened the wine shop in 2016.”
Since then, the gold and silver medals have kept on coming, with the 2014 Simo receiving Double Gold at the 2019 All Canadian Wine Championships, beating out 1,378 other entries. In addition, their wines have earned gold at many international competitions in the United States and Europe.
In 2020, the winery launched their Indigenous Spirits craft alcohol line, starting with vodka.
“We’ve been working on a gin recipe using botanicals and locally sourced ingredients with a medicinal history in the Syilx culture. We also have eight barrels of whiskey that turn three years old this year, so we’re going to release a single barrel and a barrel-blend single malt. So that’s really exciting.”
Located across Okanagan Lake in West Kelowna, making it an ideal spot for meetings and events, the winery is sited on land belonging to Westbank First Nation. “Robert and Bernice are very proud of where they come from,” says Widdup. “The focus of the winery is not to necessarily be a cultural learning place, but it is a part of the family’s heritage and they are passionate about sharing their culture. Wine is an exceptional way to showcase the terroir of traditional lands that have sustained their people for thousands of years.”
Indigenous World Winery also understands the importance of giving back to the community. Robert Louie was the elected Chief of Westbank First Nation for decades, serving on many boards and band businesses, in addition to being Chair of the National First Nations Advisory Board. “Robert travels a lot, so Bernice is the main person in the family who oversees the winery’s day to day operations,” Widdup explains.
Widdup himself grew up in an agricultural community in rural Saskatchewan. “When I got into the wine industry in BC, I thought it would be quite competitive. Instead, it’s very collaborative. Everybody knows everybody and they really support each other. The interesting thing about being situated in West Kelowna is that there’s huge diversity. We’ve got two of the biggest wineries in all of BC up the road and some of the smallest ones right next door.”
“Winemaking is essentially glamour farming, to steal a phrase from the folks up at 50th Parallel Estate Winery. But it’s incredibly interesting because every year is different. It’s the one industry where you could know everything about every wine in the world this year and then next year you have to go out and learn every single wine all over again because everything’s changed.”
“The industry here is less than forty years old,” says Widdup. “Right now we’re still in the pioneering phase. We’re not like California, Oregon or Chile where these industries are hundreds of years old, we’ve only been doing it for a short amount of time. We’re attracting a huge amount of talent from all across the globe to come here and make their name and discover what it is to make wine in BC, so it’s extremely exciting and I’m very proud to be part of this industry.”
“It’s also amazing to be a part of a community where everybody is really trying to help each other out. It was especially cool during the pandemic, just the number of trade and tourism industries that tried to bring everybody together to share their stories and best practices and what they’ve learned. I think if anything, it strengthened the community even more.”