The Native American Wine Valley
Yocha Dehe tribal chairman Marshall McKay and director of land management Jim Etters visit the 9-acre vineyard near Cache Creek Casino that produced the first vintage of Seka Hills Wines, Capay Valley, Calif.
The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation introduced Seka Hills Wines earlier this year, notching a new chapter in the history of this Native American tribe with the release of its first branded commercial agricultural product. The Yocha Dehe, owners and operators of Cache Creek Casino Resort, have made a major investment, acquiring and developing agricultural land in the Capay Valley, their ancestral homeland in Yolo County about 40 miles northwest of Sacramento. The Yocha Dehe own more than 7,000 acres in the Capay Valley, most of it purchased in the past decade, as the tribe sought to diversify its economic operations and reconnect with the land and its agrarian heritage.
Wine is the first of several products planned under the Seka Hills brand. “Seka,” which means “blue” in the Wintun’s native Patwin language, refers to Blue Ridge, the mountain range on the west side of Capay Valley.
Yocha Dehe tribal chairman Marshall McKay has placed greater emphasis on the tribe’s cultural renewal and preservation in recent years. The tribe’s farming and land-management operations focus on responsible stewardship and sustainable practices.
“As the historical inhabitants of Capay Valley, our homeland is at the heart of Yocha Dehe culture and heritage,” McKay boasted. Our ancestors hunted, tended the land, traded and prospered in the watershed of Cache Creek. We were an independent and self-sufficient people, and our culture was built upon the abundant resources in the creek and the valley.”
As with other California native tribes, the California Gold Rush took a severe toll on the Wintun, who have since traveled a long road to become self-sufficient once again. In the early 1900s, the few remaining Wintun were placed on a federally created “rancheria” on unproductive land in Rumsey, in the northern Capay Valley. In 1940, the tribe moved to land near Brooks, Calif., in the southern Capay Valley to begin subsistence-level farming, gradually moving toward self-governance and economic independence.
In 1985 the tribe opened Cache Creek Indian Bingo, which later expanded into the current Cache Creek Casino Resort that includes, a 200-room luxury hotel, nine restaurants and an 18-hole golf course. With 2,500 employees, it is the largest private employer in Yolo County. In 2009, the tribe legally changed its name from the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, as labeled by the federal government, to Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.
Diversified farming operation
Jim Etters, director of land management for the tribe, manages the Yocha Dehe Farm and Ranch. For the past eight years, he has been involved with acquisition, development and management of agricultural properties in the Capay Valley that now total 1,300 acres in production, with 250 acres certified organic. In addition to winegrapes, crops include almonds, walnuts, alfalfa, oat hay, rye grass, safflower, seed crops and wheat. Blueberries and asparagus were recently planted.
Also in production are 82 acres of olives for oil production; another 20 acres will be planted in spring 2012. Seka Hills olive oil will be the next branded product. Organic fresh produce will be sold under the brand in the future.
The tribe farms 15 acres of estate vineyards in three locations. A 9-acre vineyard was planted in 2006 on the west side of Highway 16, across from the casino. This block includes Syrah and Viognier on VSP trellis with a production target of 4 to 5 tons per acre.
Etters said, “We get good sunlight, and don’t have trouble with ripening. Being in a warmer location, we leave a little more canopy than you’d find in more coastal areas.” This block provided the first commercial Seka Hills wines produced from the 2010 vintage, a Rosé of Syrah, and a 100% Viognier varietal released in February 2011. The Viognier won a “Best of Class” award at the 2011 California State Fair Wine Competition with a score of 93 points. McKay commented, “Everything the tribe undertakes is about quality and longevity. To take home an award right out of the gate with our first wine was a validation of our efforts to produce quality products.”
A 5-acre block located near the golf course is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Petite Syrah. A 1-acre block of Tannat is located at the tribe’s Kisi Ranch property.
The wines are produced at Revolution Wines in Sacramento under a custom-crush arrangement. A 2010 red wine blend is in barrel, and release is planned in spring 2012. Etters estimated that the 2011 vintage would increase production to about 2,000 cases. The current 15 acres of estate vineyards will provide maximum production of about 3,500 cases per year. If sales growth looks favorable, the tribe will consider additional vineyard planting.
Initially sold by the glass and bottle in Cache Creek Casino’s bars and restaurants and at the golf course and gift shop, the wines are now available at other Yolo County retailers including Nugget Markets and the Davis Food Co-op. Seka Hills is also sold at the Capay Organic Farm Fresh to You Store in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and at the Napa Valley Wine Exchange. The wines can be ordered directly from its website, sekahillscom. Lindsey Mezger handles Seka Hills direct sales and marketing.
Olive mill will house visitor, tasting facilities
The tribe began building an olive oil milling facility this year across the highway from the casino, outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment from Italy. It plans to release its first bottling of Seka Hills Extra Virgin Olive Oil in 2012.
The mill will also operate as a regional olive oil crush facility for other olive g rowers. In Yolo County, super high-density plantings of olives, designed for mechanical harvesting, have expanded to more than 1,000 acres in recent years. Etters said, “We will provide full service olive oil milling, storage and bottling, all onsite.”
The tribe’s agricultural products will take a higher profile in the spring of 2012 with the opening of a public space in the olive mill building as a visitor center for tasting and sales of olive oil and wine. The facility will also serve as a way to work cooperatively and promote good relations with other farmers in Capay Valley, who have not always taken a favorable view of the tribe’s expanded casino operations.
McKay hopes the new facility can serve as a center for tastings and events to showcase olive oils and wines from local growers, and to promote other Capay Valley products. “The response to our olive mill project has been very positive, and our neighbors have shown confidence that we can produce high-quality oils from locally grown olives,” he said. Emphasizing the tribe’s values of stewardship and sustainability, McKay summarized: “The tribe is about doing things well and doing things right. This encompasses being a good neighbor.”
Other Native American wines
The introduction of Seka Hills Wines in 2011 was significant for another reason: Few Native Americans are producing commercial wines. McKay said there are other Native American wine producers, however, “It’s still very rare at this point.”
He raised the possibility of sourcing grapes from other tribe-owned vineyards, noting that the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, which operates a casino in Santa Barbara County, had recently acquired vineyards there. A non-exhaustive Internet search revealed the following Native American-produced wines:
Native Vines Winery, based in Lexington, N.C., claims to be the first American Indian-owned and operated winery in the United States. Darlene Gabbard and her husband Nick, members of the Lumbee tribe, started producing wines in 1998. The winery produces seasonal fruit wines and vinifera wines from North Carolina vineyards.
Fire Mountain Wines, based in Verde Valley, Ariz., was started by Jamie Fullmer, chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation. Fullmer’s goal is to produce premier native-owned wine to sell through “Indian Country” establishments throughout the U.S. The winery has released red and white wine blends from Arizona vineyards as well as a blend made with grapes purchased from Paso Robles. Website: firemountainwines.com
Mattaponi Winery of Spotsylvania, Va., was founded in 2002 by Jeanette Evans, who is of Cherokee heritage. It produces estate-grown vinifera wines and fruit wines.
The Pomo Nation Wine Group, based in Healdsburg, Calif., was started by Gary Ray Cordova and Ben G Ray III, both of Pomo Indian ancestry. The wines are available at seven Indian casinos in California and other restaurants and retail locations.
Perhaps the best-known Native American wine brand is Nk’Mip Cellars in Osoyoos, B.C. Now a Constellation wine brand run by Canada’s massive Vincor, it was established in 2002.