Behind the Rise of Native American Wines | Wine Enthusiast
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Behind the Rise of Native American Wines

Several wineries and grape-growing relationships have emerged from Native American reservations in recent years. While each project looks different, they are all deliciously symbiotic.

Tribes in California, New Mexico, Utah and British Columbia have created small, successful and critically acclaimed brands. They also incorporate strict sustainability practices in an effort to protect the land.

Outside winemakers are also working with Native American growers. It’s not just a socially responsible business plan, but an investment in the future.

Tara Gomez standing next to lush vines
Tara Gomez of Kitá Vineyards/Photo by Benny Haddad

Kitá Wines

Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

For centuries prior to the arrival of European colonizers in 1492, Native Americans had a sustainable, sometimes spiritual relationship with the land. Centuries of displacement and colonialism disrupted that bond, but in recent years, tribes have sought ways to make ends meet without sacrificing their ideology or values.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, with land in Santa Barbara County, founded Kitá Wines. The producer grows all of its grapes on tribal land and has a Native American winemaker, Tara Gomez, at its helm. It’s also the first winery and vineyard run solely by tribe members. The word kitá is from the Santa Ynez Chumash native language, Samala, and translates to “our valley oak.”

Gomez fell in love with winemaking after she first set foot in a winery as a child. The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians awarded her with a scholarship to California State University at Fresno, where she was one of two women to earn an enology degree in 1998.

Gomez worked and traveled across California and Europe, but she wanted to combine the art of Old World winemaking and the ancient, deeply spiritual Chumash approach to sustainability and the tribe’s love of land.

Tara Gomez pushing grapes into juice with a metal tool
Tara Gomez punching down fermenting red grapes./Photo by Heather Daenitz

In 2010, the Chumash Indians purchased the Camp 4 Vineyard from one of Gomez’s former employers, Fess Parker. The 1,400-acre property has 256 acres under vine.

“It definitely took some convincing, and for the Tribe, it was a big risk because they didn’t know anything about winemaking and they just had to trust me,” Gomez says. “But I explained my vision of using the gifts of Mother Earth and the spirit of Santa Ynez Valley to make wines that express the balance of soil, climate, location and taste, and they eventually agreed to allow me to do it for one year.”

The first year, Gomez produced 180 cases. She began to win regional awards, and sales exceeded expectations. The 140 tribal elders saw that the wine was an example of their connection to the land and a way to provide for future generations. Twenty varieties are grown at Kitá’s estate, with more than a dozen reds, whites and rosés produced.

“Nothing gets wasted,” says Gomez. “Everything we do in the vineyards and winery reflects our Tribe’s vision of sustainability. We rely on owls, bats and hawks to help with our rodents and insects. We compost everything and turn it back to the land.”

Kitá now produces up to 2,000 cases each year. It opened a tasting room in 2018, and wines are shipped to every state. The wines are available at outlets and stores throughout California, which includes, notably, Disneyland.

Nk’Mip Cellars

Osoyoos Indian Band

Randy Picton and Justin Hall are winemakers at British Columbia’s Nk’Mip (in-ka-meep) Cellars, which claims to be the first Indigenous-owned and -operated winery in North America. Like Gomez, the duo is dedicated to the proud legacy of Native Americans’ connection to the land and a classical Old World approach to winemaking.

The winery launched in 2002, when the Osoyoos (o-soo-yuss) Indian Band put more than 1,500 acres of prime vineyard acres into production. Nk’Mip soures their grapes from approximately 360 acres, while the rest of the vineyards are leased to other producers. Picton, senior winemaker for Nk’Mip, says that land preservation and the use of modern technology has been part of Nk’Mip’s delicate balancing act from the beginning.

“As winemakers, we try to take actions, however small, that help us become more sustainable,” says Hall, a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band that Picton hired and mentors. “We closely monitor our water usage daily, use compost to fertilize and approach our vineyards with deep respect that reflects our people’s connection to the land.”

Nk’Mip’s production is up to 18,000 cases a year. Its wines are available in Canada, through online sales and select stores, with limited releases available in Hong Kong and Seattle. The income from wine sales allows Nk’Mip to reinvest into the community, fund educational and cultural programs, and support elders.

Ripe grapes on a vine
Photo courtesy of Gruet Winery

Twisted Cedar

Cedar Band of Paiutes

A desire to fund a tribe’s future without sacrificing its cultural heritage propelled the Cedar Band of Paiutes, located in Southwest Utah, into the wine business. In 2008, tribe elders reached out to Bill Tudor, now vice president of the Cedar Band Corporation that is owned by the Paiutes, for advice.

“I found 100 potential winery partners for the Paiutes, because we knew that planting their own vineyards would mean a seven-year commitment, vine to wine,” says Tudor. “They selected one who met their needs. As a matriarchal, extremely environmentally conscientious society, they were thrilled to find Karen Birmingham, a female winemaker in Northern California.” Birmingham is also one of the winemakers for LangeTwins.

The Lodi Rules-certified grower produces 23 varieties for the Paiutes on 8,000 acres spread across four AVAs in Northern California. While the Tribe doesn’t own the land, an elder performed a ceremonial blessing of the vineyards and winemaking equipment. At 7,200 cases a year, Twisted Cedar wines are available online and in 19 states, as well as the District of Columbia. The wines have struck a chord with consumers eager to support brands that are sustainable.

“People want to support brands they think are doing something important,” says Eric Crane, director of training and business development for Empire Distributors and a member of the Guild of Sommeliers Education Foundation board of directors. “The Native American wine category is a really exciting space to watch, not only because they connect with consumers who want to support environmental and Indigenous American causes, but because of shifting farming regulations that give Native Americans an advantage, in some ways, over conventional farmers.”

Crane references a 2017 Supreme Court decision that, in essence, gives preferential water rights to tribes in Western states, allowing access to more than 10.5 million acre-feet of surface and groundwater per year.

Water, especially in states like California, New Mexico and Arizona, has become increasingly scarce. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that surface water in agricultural areas will be reduced by more than 50% in some regions by 2060, which means those water rights should also increase in value.

Photo of a sign saying The Tamaya Vineyard
Tamaya Vineyard owned by the Pueblo of Santa Ana/Photo courtesy of Gruet Winery

Gruet Winery

Santa Ana Pueblo

Even before the ruling, Joseph Bronk, the director of agricultural enterprises for the Santa Ana Pueblo, sought an opportunity to partner with New Mexico’s Gruet Winery.

“We planted 30 acres with the Pueblo in 2014, and our first harvest was in 2016,” says Laurent Gruet, head winemaker and son of the winery’s founder, Gilbert Gruet. “We’ve been delighted since the very first harvest. There’s a delicious acidity in the grapes, a great balance of minerality.”

Production at the Santa Ana Pueblo-owned Tamaya vineyard, done as sustainably and as organically as possible, has scaled up slowly and allows the tribe to support itself. At the height of harvest, around 40 members of the tribe hand-harvest grapes, and there are several members with full-time, year-round employment. Gruet is currently its sole customer.

All told, Gruet produces 275,000 cases of wine annually. While the Pueblo’s grapes are responsible for about 4% of Gruet’s production right now, Laurent anticipates that number to grow perhaps as high as 40% in the coming years.

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