Native American Terroir: Tribes Reclaim Land with Vines and Wineries

Wine

All along the West Coast, the original inhabitants of North America’s prime wine regions are investing in their nations’ future by putting down roots in vineyards. For Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Wine Spectator spoke to representatives from four native communities leading the way in the world of wine, to find out how their enterprises have evolved over the past decade, and to learn how winegrowing supports their individual and tribal identities as stewards of the land.

A common thread among Native American vintners is how they see the potential for both economic and ecological sustainability in winemaking. “When we talk about regenerative farming, it dates back to our indigenous ancestors’ beginnings, which have defined sustainable agriculture and land stewardship,” notes Tara Gomez, credited with being the first Native American winemaker. “That’s why having that connection to the land is so important, and it’s only natural to want to be protectors of the land and water.”

From the Chumash tribe in California’s Santa Barbara County all the way up north to the Osoyoos Band in Canada’s Okanagan Valley, near the border with Washington, here are four indigenous-owned wineries laying claim to their own terroir, to support their people and the planet.


Séka Hills

Location: Yolo County, California
Owner: Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation
Wines: Rosé, Viognier, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah
Website: shop.sekahills.com

Over 10 years, Séka Hills has expanded to 36 acres of grapevines from which it produces 10 estate-grown wines. (Courtesy of Séka Hills)

In Yolo County, bordering eastern Napa County along the Vaca mountains, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation owns and manages a winery and 36 acres of vineyards in the Capay Valley as part of their larger Séka Hills agricultural business. “The tribe wanted a brand name that connected their Patwin language and the land, so ‘séka’ is Patwin for ‘blue,’ to honor the Blue Hills that are along the west side of the valley,” explains Jim Etters, director of land management for the Yocha Dehe.

Starting off with just 9 acres of vineyard in 2012, Séka Hills now produces around 2,500 cases of their 10 estate-grown wines. The Yocha Dehe Nation—which also owns the area’s Cache Creek Casino Resort— has grown Séka Hills’ portfolio over the past 20 years into one of the largest farming enterprises in Yolo County. The tribe now manages over 25,000 acres of land, using organic and sustainable practices, and grows more than a dozen crops in addition to wine grapes.

“The tribe really wanted to diversify their economic interests, and they also wanted to have control of their homeland and how it was being cared for,” says Etters. “They also wanted to give back to the land and so, in order to do all that, they needed to have complete control. For them to own a pretty good amount of their homeland now, and care for it in the ways they want, that has really been amazing to see.”


Camins 2 Dreams

Location: Sta. Rita Hills, California
Owner: Tara Gomez of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, and wife Mireia Taribó
Wines: Syrah, California Rhône-style blends, Grüner Veltliner, Albariño
Website: camins2dreams.com

 Camins 2 Dreams co-owner Tara Gomez driving a winery vehicle

Tara Gomez has transferred her experience running Kitá Wines for the Chumash to the small winery she co-owns with her wife. (Courtesy of Camins 2 Dreams)

In California’s Central Coast, Tara Gomez owns Camins 2 Dreams winery in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation with her wife, Mireia Taribó. Over 10 years ago, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians bought back 1,400 acres of its land, which included already planted vineyards. From those, the Chumash established Kitá Wines, the first tribally owned winery in the United States, with Gomez at the helm.

Kitá didn’t achieve the level of success for which the tribe had hoped and closed its doors in 2022 (though the tribe still maintains ownership of the land). But Gomez used the experience to strike out on her own. She and Taribó purchased their own parcel on historical Chumash land and founded Camins, where the couple focuses on their favorite cool-climate grapes, Syrah and Grüner Veltliner. “To establish my own winery has been a lifelong dream of mine,” says Gomez. “Camins 2 Dreams is a path for other Natives to follow in this industry. It allows me to continue teaching others about my tribe and us as Native Americans in the wine industry, [and be] a mentor to other aspiring BIPOC winemakers.”


Nk’Mip Cellars

Location: Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Owner: Osoyoos Band of the Okanagan Tribe
Wines: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Rosé
Website: www.nkmipcellars.com

 Portrait of Nk'Mip winemaker Justin Hall in front of a stack of wine barrels

Winemaker Justin Hall prioritizes land stewardship for the next generation in his work at Nk’Mip Cellars. (Courtesy of Nk’Mip Cellars)

Another trailblazer is Justin Hall, the first indigenous winemaker in Canada. A member of the Osoyoos Band of the Okanagan Tribe, Hall now heads up their wine brand, Nk’Mip Cellars, in the Okanagan Valley region in western Canada.

The Osoyoos Band encompasses around 600 tribe members, who have benefited from Hall’s careful management of Nk’Mip. “I think the reward is doing good for my people… And making good wine, obviously,” he says. “But all the pride and all the work you put into every vineyard as a winemaker means even more, because being Native American, it makes me feel like a steward of the land.”

The Osoyoos own around 1,250 acres of vineyards; about 350 acres are devoted to the production of Nk’Mip’s proprietary wines, which currently total around 22,000 cases a year. Another 900 acres is leased to Arterra Wines Canada: a large, multi-brand historic Canadian producer (formerly known as Vincor), which entered into a joint venture with the Osoyoos in 2001. From this partnership, the Nk’Mip brand was founded as the first native-owned winery in North America, and now not only produces wine, but operates an impressive agritourism site offering wine tastings, tours of their vineyards and winery, an indigenous art gallery and a lounge, tasting room and restaurant.

“I always felt pride in being able to make something from the land, because this is our land, and what we have here needs to be amazing for the next seven generations,” Hall says. “When the kids of the tribe grow up, I want to make sure that they have something that is absolutely usable and sustainable, that the land and soil is usable for them. I don’t want to plunder and pillage.”

 Vineyards surround Nk'Mip winery, with mountains in the background

The Osoyoos Band use around 350 acres of their land for Nk’Mip and lease the rest of their vineyards for other brands. (Courtesy of Nk’Mip Cellars)


Twisted Cedar

Location: Lodi Valley, California
Owner: Cedar Band of Paiute Indians
Top Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Petite Sirah-Petit Verdot, Moscato
Website: twistedcedarwines.com

Owned and managed by the Cedar Band of Paiute Indians, Twisted Cedar winery operates out of their reservation in Utah. Sourcing grapes primarily from California’s Lodi AVA, with some also coming from Clarksburg, the brand currently produces approximately 10,000 cases a year, spanning a wide range of varieties.

When discussing Twisted Cedar’s beginnings, vice president of sales Phillip Anderson puts it simply; ”It was just a matter of wanting to find something that would enable the tribe to make money and provide services for the band, but not be detrimental to the planet.”

Twisted Cedar focuses on making wine that is certified by the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing, California’s original sustainable viticulture program. “I think [the Lodi rules] are the gold standard for sustainability.” says Anderson. “With our rules, it’s a third party, and it has to be recertified every year. So I like the idea that it’s not just about being part of the program, it’s not just not spraying pesticides or not getting fertilizer in the river, which are all super important, but it’s also about paying the guys that pick the grapes a living wage.”

Likewise, at the Utah winery, the economic and social responsibility aspects of sustainability are as important as the environmental component. “[Twisted Cedar] produces a tremendous benefit to the Band’s community, by providing employment opportunities and socioeconomic programs on the reservation,” says Laurel Yellowhorse, a member of the board of directors for the Cedar Band corporation. “Respect for the land and sustainable farming practices are strong cultural beliefs held by the Cedar Band of Paiutes. We build our business on respect for the land.”

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