Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Nk'Mip's Randy Picton retires

Photo: Winemakers Randy Picton (l) and Justin Hall (credit Jacquie Tremblay/Deeper Image Photography
One of the Okanagan’s most successful winemakers, Randy Picton, is retiring at the end of June, 2021, as senior winemaker at Nk’Mip Cellars. His successor is Justin Hall, who once said he had “bugged” Randy for three months before being given a job in the winery in 2004. He worked his way into the top job by mentoring with Randy while studying viticulture and enology at Okanagan University College and Lincoln University in New Zealand. That career path somewhat mirrored Randy’s own career. “It has been a good run,” Randy says, “but much like when I left the forestry industry, I feel like the timing is right: get out while you still enjoy what you are doing but ahead of the time when it becomes ‘a job’. I've been very fortunate to have worked in the industry for 25 years - and in particular the last 19 years, being able to contribute to the success of Nk'Mip.”
Born in 1958 in Saskatchewan, Picton cycled through a variety of jobs after getting a Business Administration Diploma from Mount Royal College in Calgary. His experience in the forest industry included several seasons as a tree planter. When that became too physically demanding, he spotted the potential of the Okanagan wine industry and enrolled at Okanagan University College in 1995 in its newly launched winemaking program. At the same time, he took a job in the cellar at CedarCreek Estate Winery where he mentored under Kevin Willenborg and Tom DiBello, two University of California trained winemakers who once worked at CedarCreek. “I started at CedarCreek for part of the 1995 vintage, just as I was going through the co-op program at OUC,” Randy once told me in an interview. “1996 was a horrible vintage. It was October 17 that was our first picking date of the year. We were picking Auxerrois, which should be picked at the beginning of September. And it was snowing. We had 300 tons still to bring in, and a very antiquated facility at the time. The fact that we got it all in was a miracle in itself.”
Randy not only survived that rough introduction to the wine industry; he thrived in it. He was twice in charge of winemaking at CedarCreek during extended periods when the winery was between senior winemakers. Under Tom DiBello’s direction, he was put in charge of making Pinot Gris and Icewine. He was recruited for Nk’Mip, which had been formed as a joint venture between the Osoyoos Indian Band and Vincor Canada (now Arterra Wines Canada). It was the first aboriginal winery in North America. Soon after Randy began making the wines, Nk’Mip was winning major awards. In one vintage there, he made an Icewine so fine that I scored it 100 points.
It is a unique relationship in the wine industry between the Band and Arterra. The majority of Arterra’s vineyards are on land leased from the Osoyoos Indian Band. Most of Arterra’s wines are made in the sprawling winery just north of Oliver, also on land owned by the Band. Arterra markets most of Nk’Mip’s wines in the same channels in which it sells its other brands.
Because the Nk’Mip winery is jammed to capacity, there has been pressure to make some of Nk’Mip’s wines in the much larger Oliver facility. So far, that seems to have been resisted. “I have dug my heels in, saying this is Nk’Mip – we’re different,” Randy told me a few years ago. “We’re a joint venture with Arterra but we are an Osoyoos Indian Band winery and we are making the wines in an Osoyoos Indian Band facility and that is what we want to continue to do.” He adds: “What is nice about this winery is that we are so tied to the land. 100% of the grapes for these wines are grown on Osoyoos Indian Band land. It is an important part of our mandate.”
The superb fruit available to Randy from the estate vineyard and from the legendary Inkameep Vineyard north of Oliver has enabled Randy to premiumize the Nk’Mip portfolio over the years. The best example is Mer’r’iym, the winery’s flagship Bordeaux red blend, first made in the 2008 vintage. Randy had already begun creating a premium tier of wines designated Qwam Qwmt, which means achieving excellence in the language of the Osoyoos First Nation. “2008 was the first year that we had a chance to work with all five of the classic red Bordeaux varietals,” Randy told me. “Other wineries had their iconic red blends. We thought this was our opportunity, now that we had all the varietals that we think we need.” Several years ago, the winery also added a White Mer’r’iym to its portfolio. The name of the wine, also from the Osoyoos Band’s language, is pronounced mur-eem and means marriage – “the perfect union of varietals.” It also sets up Randy’s standard witticism about the wine’s ageability. “I tell them that Mer’r’iym means marriage, and like any good marriage, it should probably last seven to 10 years” he says. He and his wife, Lynele, have been married since 1981. While Randy retires at the end of June, he expects to be involved in the 2021 vintage to ensure a smooth transition in the Nk’Mip cellar.
A member of the Osoyoos Indian Band, Justin Hall completed studies at the South Okanagan Secondary School in Oliver while also working at band’s golf course. When that shut for winter, he set his sight on getting a fulltime job at the winery. A winery-issued biography of Justin recalled that search. “… Hall ‘bugged Randy once a week’ for three months until Picton finally told Hall there was a job for him. And so, in January 2004, Hall joined Nk’Mip and was rewarded for his persistence with the glamourous tasks of cleaning equipment and hoses. It didn’t matter – within a month, Hall was hooked and knew this was the job for him.” He soon enrolled at Okanagan University College. He also gained more experience by doing a crush at an Australian winery then owned by Vincor. Subsequently, he completed a 10-month program on cool climate viticulture and winemaking at Lincoln University in New Zealand. Randy’s mentorship of First Nations talent extends beyond Justin. The veteran cellar supervisor at Nk’Mip cellars is Aaron Crey, a member of the Cheam Indian Band in the Fraser Valley. He joined Nk’Mip cellars just before vintage in 2003. Randy leaves an impressive legacy of fine wines and commendable human resources policies. If I owned a winery, I would sign him up as a consultant.

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