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A meeting of Nations

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Maori and Cowichan First Nations explore winemaking notes at Araxi’s

Well it is not every day that one is a manuhiri of a hakari among kaumatua, especially at Araxi restaurant. The kai was ka pai. That is to say, it is not every day that one is a guest at a feast among elders, and, not surprisingly for Araxi restaurant, the food was excellent.

However, it was not only the food that brought a group of elders and their guests together last week, but more importantly, the wine. James Wheeler, director of Tohu wines, invited members of the Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) First Nation of Vancouver Island and the Lil’wet’ul First Nation of Mount Currie to share in the B.C. launching of his New Zealand wines.

Tohu wines are unique in that the vineyard is entirely Maori owned. Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. The warm and welcoming atmosphere of Araxi’s served as a perfect backdrop for the meeting and exchange of trade knowledge between the international First Nations.

In his opening remarks at the winemaker’s dinner, Mr. Wheeler outlined the objective of Tohu wines, jointly owned by Wakatu Incorporation, Ngati Rarua Atiawa Iwi Trust and Wi Pere Trust, which is: "to export our culture in the right way". The three partners have several other investments, including the production of kiwi fruit, pears and apples, the export of crayfish and green shell mussels, deer and sheep farming as well as forestry. But none of these businesses were "good enough for promoting the Maori" culture.

Taking advantage of their geographic placement, smack dab in the middle of New Zealand’s premier wine growing regions, Gisborne and Marlborough, Tohu wines became the first indigenous branded wine to be produced for the export market. The labels on the bottles tell the story of the Maori people.

The wines themselves follow the success story that other New Zealand wines have practised. In their first year of distribution, 1998, they sold 3,000 cases. In 2002 that number had steadily climbed to 28,000 cases, and they project 120,000 cases by 2007. If the numbers don’t convince you, tasting the wines will, they are ka pai (excellent).

This meeting of Nations, which may become a formal relationship, was the result of a fortuitous encounter on the streets of Victoria. Ron Rice, Project Co-coordinator for the Quw’utsun’ Vineyard Project (QVP), bumped into a Maori friend that he had worked with at the 1997 North American Indigenous Games. In the few minutes catching up on news, Mr. Rice mentioned his main project, an economic development initiative of the Khowutzun Development Corporation to incorporate QVP, acquire existing vineyards and start First Nations owner-operator vineyards. In the future, QVP hopes to expand their product into the export market.

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