Piled high with peaches, apples, and cherries, produce stands line British Columbia’s Highway 3, in the desert-like South Okanagan. Several of these businesses also sell samosas.
Many families immigrated to western Canada from India’s agricultural Punjab region, settling in the Okanagan Valley in the 1980s and early 1990s. As more Okanagan farmers began swapping out fruit crops for wine grapes, so, too, did many of these South Asian entrepreneurs.
Today, descendants of these Indo-Canadian farmers own half a dozen Okanagan wineries. And it’s the younger generation, most of whom were born in Canada, that’s driving this evolution from farming to winemaking.
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Building Wine Culture from the Ground Up
“This area is populated with people who have been farmers for generations,” says Neelam Dhaliwal, the operations manager at Kismet Estate Winery, which her father Sukwinder and her uncle Balwinder opened in Oliver, British Columbia, in 2013. “We grew up as kids working in the vineyards.
Arriving in Canada in the early ’90s, the Dhaliwal brothers worked for other growers, gradually buying their own land and planting wine grapes. Today, Neelam says, the family is among the South Okanagan’s largest grape growers, managing over 500 acres.
But the decision to expand from growing grapes to making wine wasn’t easy. Although several winemakers who mentored the brothers encouraged them, family members weren’t sure that winemaking was for them. After all, they were farmers from a region with no wine culture. “It was a lack of confidence,” says Neelam. “Are we crazy for even thinking that we, an immigrant family, can open a winery?” Before coming to Canada, she says, her parents had never even sampled wine.
The Dhaliwals eventually decided that their journey from farming to winemaking was kismet—the Sanskrit word meaning “destiny.” Not only did they call their new winery Kismet, they’ve given Sanskrit names to several of their wines, including Karma and Mantra, both red blends.
“In Eastern culture, karma is a way of life. What you give out, you will receive.” For their family, Neelam explains, that means supporting the entrepreneurs who are coming after them. “If someone needs help, we show up. If my dad gets a call, ‘Hey uncle, I need your tractor,’ we give you the tractor.”
Working with Family—and Managing Family Dynamics
Another (unrelated) Dhaliwal family followed a similar path. Ricky Dhaliwal, co-owner of Lakeside Cellars in Osoyoos, British Columbia, says that his family grew cherries, peaches, and apples, after his parents immigrated to Canada from Punjab in the late 1980s. When Ricky was five years old, the family moved to the Okanagan. In 2009, he says, “we converted our orchards in Oliver to grapes,” harvesting their first crop two years later. Soon, they were supplying grapes to area wineries.
The family had been considering starting a winemaking operation when they spotted a for-sale notice on land overlooking Osoyoos Lake. “Wow, if we wanted to build a winery, this is the place to do it,” Ricky and his parents concluded, purchasing the property in 2015. They opened Lakeside Cellars, with a small tasting room inside the production facility, in 2019, and are currently constructing a new lakeside tasting room.
Ricky and his wife Danielle, who’s of German-Portuguese heritage, have two young sons. “My wife keeps saying they can do whatever they want,” he laughs, “but, hopefully, they’ll be our future winemakers.”
“We’re proud to say, ‘We’re Punjabi, we’re farmers.’ We went through the same journey, figuring out how to keep our heritage but be Canadian.” – Neelam Dhaliwal, Kismet Estate Winery
Further north, Bobby Gidda’s family were the first Indo-Canadians to settle in West Kelowna, after his grandfather Mehtab arrived from Punjab, purchasing a farm in 1963. Bobby, president of Volcanic Hills Estate Winery, which he runs with his sister, Christina Tumber, and brother, Amit Gidda, recounts that he and his siblings grew up on this same farm.
Earning a business degree at Okanagan College, Bobby says, “I took every course I could think of that would benefit me in running this business. Business administration, hospitality, finance, marketing.” He also completed winemaking and sales training programs.
“My parents’ generation, and their parents’ generation, they used their backs,” adds Bobby. “My generation, we have tools and technology. We’re using our brains.”
Mount Boucherie Estate Winery, which the Giddas opened in 2000 and operated until 2008, was the Okanagan’s first Indo-Canadian-owned winery, though it’s now run by different owners. The family launched Volcanic Hills in 2010, where Bobby says he’s involved in a little of everything, even driving the forklift during harvest. “My dad always told me that, as the owner or manager, you should know every task.”
Amit manages customer service and the wine shop, while Tumber oversees the company’s merchandising. Bobby’s wife, Harpreet, works part-time as a bookkeeper, while a cousin manages the vineyards. “In Asian cultures, the oldest is usually in charge,” says Bobby, who’s the middle child among his siblings. “But you have to keep those dynamics out of the business.”
Carrying on the Legacy
As housing prices have risen significantly in Vancouver and other urban areas, a new wave of young Indo-Canadian families is relocating to the Okanagan. “When we go to the temple, there’s all these new faces,” notes Bobby.
Some of the newcomers work remotely, primarily for technology companies, while others with local farming roots are getting into the wine business—a development that the Giddas welcome. In the Okanagan, he says, “our community has done really well for itself.”
Neelam Dhaliwal agrees. Growing up, she says, she and her Canadian-born peers downplayed their culture. Now, as wine entrepreneurs, they’re taking pride in their Indian roots. “We’re proud to say, ‘We’re Punjabi, we’re farmers.’ We went through the same journey, figuring out how to keep our heritage but be Canadian.”
In her family, it’s the Sanskrit names they’ve given their wines and the Indian restaurant that they opened adjacent to their winery. It’s also about educating the next generation to continue the entrepreneurial journey.
“Our parents did all the grunt work,” says Neelam. “You want to give back to them. You want to carry on their legacy.”
A legacy that, for these South Asian farmers turned winemakers, has an element of kismet.
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Based in Vancouver, Canada, Carolyn B. Heller writes about food, drink, travel, art, and culture for publications including Travel + Leisure, TIME, Lonely Planet, Positive News, Vegetarian Times, Roadtrippers, Verge Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Smart Mouth, Explore, The Takeout, Edible Vancouver Island, Montecristo Magazine, and many others.