Okanagan Stargazing and Winemaking With Ursa Major’s Founder, Rajen Toor

Rajen Toor is the owner and half of the winemaking team at Ursa Major Wines – the result of a near-lifetime of exposure to the fermented grape life through his family’s winery, Desert Hills, where he is also the assistant winemaker.

Pop a bottle (no glass is necessary) and read on to learn more about a forward-thinking winemaker with an unconventional approach to winemaking on the Black Sage Bench. And cheers to a more convivial and inclusive wine future!

Tell me about your approach to wine, in a nutshell. My approach to wine is definitely community oriented. It takes a group of individuals to come together to grow healthy, honest fruit and make authentic wines. Without this sense of community Ursa Major Wines definitely would not exist! And to take the pretension out of wine, to create something that I would enjoy drinking myself!

Where does your interest in astronomy come from and how deep does it go? I had this teacher in 4th grade that was obsessed with Astronomy. His classroom was completely decked out in pictures of solar systems, supernovas, constellations, planets…you name it. He spoke exactly like Neil Degrasse Tyson in each lesson, creating a sense of mysticism and wonder about it but still rooting it in obvious science. At the end of the year he had the entire class and parents over at his place where had a giant telescope. I can’t even describe the first time I looked through that thing, the fact that I was staring at Saturn and its rings with my naked eye…even at a young age it sparked this weird existentialism in me, that has yet to fade away.

What inspired the name Ursa Major Wines? Growing up we used to get a visiting black bear and her cubs that would sneak into the vineyard and eat (literally) tons of grapes just prior to harvest. Each year the game became getting to the ripe blocks before she did! Also the Ursa Major constellation (the Great Bear constellation) was the most prominent in the sky from our property. My parents used to say that she was just trying to feed her family from these grapes, just as we were. That story really stuck.

What motivated you to start up Ursa Major? Initially I was motivated to start up Ursa Major as a small side project, mostly to see what else a lot of these widely planted varietals can do. I’ve been around the same traditional French varietals for most of my life and at each winery…they all seemed to taste the exact same. So mostly out of curiosity I wanted to play around with these varietals (Gamay, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Syrah etc.) and see how deliciously malleable they are!

Before there was Ursa Major, what were you doing and drinking? Before there was Ursa Major I was helping out with harvest at Desert Hills, working in the tasting room, travelling, and once upon a time was attempting to become an actor. I was drinking a lot of conventional BC Pinot Noirs before I discovered a whole new world of wines…

“I always try to remind myself that life is difficult and stressful enough – a bottle of wine shouldn’t be.”

What’s your current favourite Ursa Major wine and how do you like to enjoy it? My current favourite is definitely the ‘Nocturne In Red’, which is a single vineyard Cab Franc grown on Black Sage Road. I did one barrel and that kind of made it that much more special, like babysitting something or someone that you constantly felt the need to keep checking up on. The best experience so far was when it had a slight chill on it, I brought it to the park for a bbq with a bunch of friends, not one single person brought a corkscrew so we spent a solid hour trying every trick in the book. Finally we watched a Youtube tutorial in Russian that described how to chip away at the cork with a knife – that did the job. Most rewarding bottle of wine, ever.

Your wines have won some high honors in the wine world but, from what I’ve seen on your Instagram, Ursa Major Wines doesn’t seem to be a very traditional or stereotypical winery – you participate in pop-ups and have a sense of humour about drinking, for example. What are your feelings about the wine culture at large? To be honest, the marketing manager at Desert Hills had put my wines in with the Desert Hills wines to competition. I was just as surprised as everyone else when I got an email…definitely opened a couple of doors though, that’s for sure! I’m just trying to keep it as fun and unstructured as possible for the consumers. The pop ups give me a chance to play my favourite music and shoot the shit with people that want to drink some honest wine! The wine culture at large has always kind of annoyed me to be honest. I never really understood where the sense of prestige or arrogance came from or why it still exists…it’s wine…fermented grape juice that was made with joy, creativity and love. It should be enjoyed by all! I always try to remind myself that life is difficult and stressful enough – a bottle of wine shouldn’t be.

Who has been your mentor? Anthony Buchanan. I’m his assistant at Desert Hills. Lord knows I ask him way too many questions, but he has never once hesitated to answer with a fully educated response that teaches me what, how and, most importantly, why. So far I have learned everything I know about winemaking from him. Also working in the cellar together over the last few years we’ve become pretty great friends on top of it.

My father has always been and will always be a mentor as well. Any ounce of ambition, dedication or hard work would not be at all present if it wasn’t for him. The man is a machine. And also my angel of a mother, who is still constantly teaching me the virtue of patience and forgiveness. And of course all of my sisters, who teach me everyday the benefits of their feminist, badass, don’t give a fuck attitudes.

Who is drinking your wines? Chad Kroeger.

What has been your experience of the wine community in the Okanagan and BC at large, so far? I think there has just been a lack of creativity and playfulness with the BC wine community. Although I have been pretty damn excited by some of my peers in the industry who are starting to have some fun with it and break the mold a little bit. Keenan Thrussell‘s wines from Summerland are a great example in my opinion, as well as Neon Eon, Else Wines and Anthony Buchanan Wines – those are my go to favourites from BC by far.

What does your ideal picture of wine culture look and/or act like? If someone doesn’t know something or has asked a “stupid” question about wine, it should be met with a friendly, non-sarcastic and educational response.

What is the biggest misconception about wine-making and wine-makers, in your opinion? I think the biggest misconception is that wine should just be pumped out as a product as needed, without respecting the main ethos of the process: patience…this shit takes a lot of patience! Also the Earth, how can you respect the process without giving two shits about the Earth and soil that its being grown on?

What is your favourite part of the wine-making process? The fermentation: this is where it all happens. The flavours, colours, aromas that develop here will dictate what the wine will evolve into. It’s exciting and so terrifying.

Least favourite? The patience! I tend to get so excited about a new wine that no one will taste for at least a year!

How much of yourself goes into your wine? Pretty much all of myself these days. I try to make the wines as personal as possible from the style all the way to the branding. My personal philosophies have definitely made their way into these wines, everything from the sustainable viticulture to the cellar practices I’ve learned to use.

I recently saw some beautiful clear bottles of yours at a local liquor store with what I believe are handwritten labels… can you tell me a bit about your approach to branding? How much thought do you put into your image and what sort of feeling do you want to evoke? Well, the clear bottles because a big portion of the enjoyment in winemaking for me is the huge spectrum of vibrant colours! With the labels, I wanted to go very simple and personal. All the information you need to know and nothing more. When I was young, I used to be given the task of marking the tanks with duct tape and sharpie with what was in said tank…and I just fell in love with the simplicity and the aesthetic of it. Each wine has it’s own name which is connected to a personal story or time in my life as well. Trying to keep it personal, approachable, simple and with a bit of mystery.

How many wine-related tattoos do you have? Four and counting…

How has wine affected or changed you as a person? It’s definitely made me a more patient person. It’s also changed the way I look at our Earth as well. Learning more and more about organic and bio-dynamic growing has helped me sustain my vegetarianism. It’s teaching me to realize that everything is connected, that everything works in an equalibrium and we should be doing everything we can to help sustain that equalibrium, instead of fighting against it.

For your last meal, what are you drinking? 2017 Claus Preisinger ‘Kalkundkiesel’ White. Oh. My. God. That texture…then end it off with a 2011 Arnoux-Lachaux Prem Cru Nuit-Saint-Georges, the sexiest and most complex wine I have ever had.

What’s next for Ursa Major? What are you most looking forward to for the next harvest? Just to keep playing, experimenting and telling a shitload of very personal stories through my wines. I just purchased two Georgian qvevris that I am so excited to play with this year. Qvevri fermented and aged Gamay anyone? Also going to try my hand at some co-ferments this harvest.

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