Tribes Reap Rewards from New Vineyard

For thousands of years, the Yocha Dehe Wintun people have lived in Northern California’s Capay Valley and now grow four varietal wines.

Nectar from the Reservation

Seminole Nations Vineyards grapesThe booming U.S. wine industry is taking root in Indian Country, with several tribes revitalizing ancestral lands to plant superior table and wine grapes.  A quick tour of native vineyards and wineries shows common ground:  Pockets of tribal acreage not stocked with hay and herds are now sprouting vines grown with a native lens of environmental balance.

“Historically, we’ve grown grapes since before the Spanish came in the 1500’s,” said George Toya, Farm Program Manager of the Pueblo of Nambe in New Mexico. “Those colonists brought Catholicism that uses grapes in religious ceremonies, so we started supplying priests with wine…and now are going back to grapes! ”

The Nambe community is idea for grape growing at 7000 feet elevation, with hot days but cool nights.  The resulting high sugar content, Toya suggests, can be “the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $60 bottle of wine.”

Another perk of wineries and vineyards, according to Janet Johnson from the Seminole Nation Vineyards Project in Oklahoma, is that communities come together in the planning and implementation of the program.  Her tribe actually fell into grapes when they bought the famous 26-room Grisso Mansion, an historical oil baron home that also came with two acres of vineyards.

California's Capay ValleyFor thousands of years, the Yocha Dehe Wintun people have lived in Northern California’s Capay Valley and now grow four varietal wines under the Seka Hills label, named for the blue mountains of that sovereign nation.

So, how might other groups start this agricultural project?

First, study the challenges, such as clearing invasive species and adapting to shifting growing seasons from climate change.  And, if your reservation is alcohol-free, you may want to look at wine grapes as a commodity product that targets tourist consumption rather than native.

Funding sources vary; For instance, the Pueblo of Nambe started with a small vineyard in 2012 with First Nations Development Institute money and relied on local extension services for advice about what vines to buy and how to prune and water.  With grants from the USDA, Administration for Native Americans, and others, the Seminoles often host grower recruitment meetings and visit other sites to learn the process, including the High Tunnel Project at the University of Arkansas.

“You can really do a lot with just one acre:  We have 100 vines, nine feet apart, every four feet,” Toya explained.  Johnson agrees, noting that it only takes resources and knowledge to “Once we get the resources and knowledge, we also bring in the community to make award-winning wine we can sell to casinos and tourists.”


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