Interviewing Wine Maker Randy Picton from Nk’Mip at VanWineFest 2017

Who is Randy Picton?

Randy Picton is the head wine maker at Nk’Mip Cellars, the first Aboriginal-owned winery in North America.  How did he get this position?  What did he do and which winery did he work at before moving to Nk’Mip?

Did you know that Randy submitted 14 different wines to the 2012 Wine Access awards and walked away with prizes in every category?

Find out about this and more in my interview with Randy Picton.

My Interview with Randy Picton from Nk’Mip Cellars

What drew you to wine?

Randy Picton from Nk'Mip Cellars with a glass of his Pinot Noir
Randy Picton from Nk’Mip Cellars with a glass of his Pinot Noir

It was a chance of fate.  I was 35 years old and looking for a career change.  I was working in the forest industry, carrying a chain saw for 10 yrs. and knew my body wouldn’t last.  There was an ad in the local paper for the inaugural winery assistant program at Okanagan College in Penticton.  I didn’t know anything about wine at the time.  It sounded interesting so I applied to the program.  At the Registrars office, the fellow I spoke with said the program was full. But a coworker walking past overheard and said there was one spot left and I got it. That was in 1995.

Part of the winery assistant program is doing a work practicum.  I did mine with CedarCreek in Kelowna, in part because it was the furthest distance to drive and nobody else wanted to drive to CedarCreek.  When I spent my practicum at CedarCreek I liked what they did, and they liked me, and as it turned out when I graduated they hired me to be a cellar rat.  I spent 6 years at CedarCreek.  The first 6 months were spent scrubbing stainless tanks.  At the end of the 6 years I was associate wine maker, making Pinot Gris and ice wine.

There was lots of on the job learning.  Many wine makers move around to get different perspectives and I was fortunate that 3 different wine makers worked at CedarCreek while I was there.  They all had different things to teach me.  There were interim gaps when there was no wine maker for 1-2 months so I would have to look after the winery.  It was a process that forced me to achieve me to a higher level.

In 2002 the opportunity to work at Nk’Mip Cellars.  I looked at the possibilities there. The Okanagan Indian band were growing grapes since 1968; pioneers in some respect.  CedarCreek received some of their grapes in the past, so I knew the great quality of the grapes.  The owners of Nk’Mip give me lots of latitude for wine style. It was a new venture when the winery started, so they were not trying to follow a recipe or style from a previous wine maker.  They just asked me to make x amount of cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  They gave me the latitude to create the wines like I thought they should be created.

Do you have a junior wine maker?

Yes my assistant is Justin Hall from the Osoyoos Indian band, and Aaron Cray the cellar supervisor from the Stó:lo band. These two young natives started with me in their early 20’s.  Aaron has been with me 14 years, and 13 years with Justin. We have been a solid team.  We are all on the same page on what we want to do during the harvest and in the cellar.

Randy Picton, Justin Hall, and Aaron Crey from Nk'Mip Cellars
Randy Picton, Justin Hall, and Aaron Crey from Nk’Mip Cellars (image courtesy

What are the soils like in the vineyard?

The 350 acres in Oliver has many soil types from sand to granite, schist, and gravel.  Most of the grapes we micromanage cover 40-50 acres for our production. Our blocks are sandy loam top soil with a bed of gravel underneath.  They are very mineral soils. Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir does well there.

Do you use any organic viticulture at Nk’Mip?

The vineyards are managed sustainably, as opposed to organic.  We use minimal sprays.  If there is an incidence of leaf hopper, we do not spray the whole block; we find the hoppers and spray them directly.  I think that is a good way.  I would love to be a little more organic, but I don’t control the vineyards. I’m the winemaker and can only make suggestions of what I’d like in the vineyard.  Generally suggestions get done to a certain degree.  It is an amicable relationship with the vineyard team.  Besides 350 acres in Oliver area, the balance of the 1000 acres they own is leased out to Constellation Brands.  We do source grapes from some of those vineyards for our wines.

Which wine that you produced are you the most proud of and why?

We did have a 2012 Riesling ice wine that was given 100 points.  We never had a 100 pt wine before. that was one of the better efforts.  We have a consistent low to mid 90s point ice wine portfolio. One of the biggest awards.

Do you have any favourite grapes to make wine from?

Nk'Mip Cellars Pinot Noir 2014
Nk’Mip Cellars Pinot Noir 2014

I like Pinot Noir. I like the challenge of Pinot Noir. I have been to Burgundy. You fall in love with the grape. It is just a wine I love.  I do like that the vineyards in Burgundy are all family owned.

I like working with all varietals.

For fermentation do you just use stainless for white and oak for red wines?

Yes with the exception of Chard that is fermented in barrel.  An exception is that we are going to produce a white Mer’r’iym this year.  We do a red Mer’r’iym. Mer’r’iym is Okanagan native word for marriage. This is marriage of the red Bordeaux varietals Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec.  So this year we are producing Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blend.  The Semillon was fermented and aged in oak to then blend with the Sauvignon Blanc.

<Sampling the ice wine…>  Overall ice wine is like any other wine.  You strive to get it in balance. You don’t want the sugar to overwhelm.  It is easy to find examples of ice wines too sweet and cloying.  We drifted toward picking slightly less ripe brix levels; starting at 42 brix, and now 39-40.  The ice wine harvest this year was early December. This 2015 vintage that we are drinking was a New Years baby.  I was going for New Years eve dinner, checked the temp, then drove straight to the vineyard to harvest.  I was worried about getting anybody to come out to pick on New Years Eve.  We managed to get a crew out and harvested in time.

Has BC planted the “right” grapes in your opinion?

I think it is an evolving process.  I think that is where our room to grow is in BC.  To make sure we have the right grapes, on the right root stocks, in the right micro-climate. I don’t think were there yet. There are plenty of instances where apples are pulled and Syrah was planted as Syrah was paying quite well.  I think our room to grow is the right grapes (and clones), right root stocks, right soils and micro-climate will elevate us to the next level in the Okanagan.

Do you think Syrah is sustainable here?

Yes. It’s a tough grape with some issues.  It’s susceptible to certain diseases, but the results when you make the wines are outstanding.  I think it is worth the effort. Syrah decline disease is a problem.  They don’t know what causes it.  It is difficult on the varietal, but the varietal is vigorous.Se have examples of Syrahs that have won as best Syrah in the world from a London competition.  Very few regions have the diversity where you can make award-winning wines from Syrah to ice wine. There is a diversity in the BC wine portfolio. That is a differentiating feature of the Okanagan and BC.

Thank you.

Thank you Randy for spending the time to speak with me about your wines and history with Nk’Mip.

Author: mywinepal
Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.