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Getting Gritty in the Similkameen with Rajen Toor, of Ursa Major Winery

Photo credit: Ryan Grifone

It’s been nearly five years since we last had a proper conversation with Rajen Toor, the winemaker behind Ursa Major Winery – and they’ve been exceptional years, to say the least!

Some notable events that have transpired since our 2019 interview with Toor: several sweeps of the Covid-19 virus, the total decimation of Ursa Major’s vineyard due to extreme weather, and its subsequent (in-the-process) rebirth, from the dirt up. Considering all that Ursa Major (and Toor) have been through, we thought it was about time we reconnected with some serious questions. The intention being: to solicit his unapologetically opinionated, introspective, intelligent and unfiltered responses. He didn’t disappoint.

Ingenuity, adaptability and resilience are essential in winemaking – as traits in both people and plants. What important insights or lessons have you observed in plants that you have then been able to apply to your human role as a winemaker?

Follow the natural rhythms as much as you can, listen to your vessel and try not to force it too much.

Do you talk to your vines? And, if so, what do you say to them? (And how do they respond, as a result?)

I don’t necessarily talk to the vines, but I do talk to myself around them quite a bit. It’s just me and my dog in the vineyard about 95% of the time, so whatever they have overheard…I’m sure they are a bit concerned. Usually a burst of “FUCK”, or “GODAMNIT” or sometimes I like to get creative and put a string of curses together that usually would not work. On the other hand, I am sure the vines breathe a sigh of relief whenever I burst out with the opposite: if something goes right or something is completed after being worked on for a long period of time, they will hear a resounding “FUCK YES”.

Last year you suffered a major loss, when your entire vineyard perished due to inclement weather. I know (via a recent IG post) that you’re intent on moving forward, and not lingering on the devastating event, so: putting logistics and economics of winemaking aside for a moment, how do you stay optimistic? What inspires you to adopt this attitude of gratitude and perseverance, to look forward and push on?

The main inspiration for persevering is honestly just not really having a choice. The vines, the soil and the bank don’t really have much sympathy for endurance and struggle. That’s the pragmatic answer. The second, being the main source of gratitude, is wanting to make the people that have supported us and believed in us proud. The esoteric answer is daydreaming about and envisioning ourselves in our own vineyard, farming the way we want, without anyone bothering or disrupting us. The closer it gets, the clearer the daydream gets, and that keeps us getting out of bed every damn day.

Who or what immeasurable sort of support has helped you through this unprecedented time?

The biggest immeasurable support has been my wife, Bree. On top of having a full-time winemaking job, she is a huge piece of the Ursa Major puzzle. Not only did we collaborate quite closely on the 2023 vintage of wines, but she also is the brains behind our viticulture program.

OK, now let’s backtrack and talk logistics and economics: what practical measures could the government take to support the BC wine industry right now?

I think the most immediate measures the government could take is easing up on some of its archaic regulations. Getting a consensus of arbitrary laws and seeing where things can be relaxed to let growers and farmers get back on their feet.

We know that forecasting is a tricky business, especially given the accelerating climate change-related issues. But with that in mind, please share your predictions or thoughts on the future direction of the Okanagan wine market over the next decade—particularly regarding potential long-term environmental impacts.

In my opinion, there are essentially two directions that the Okanagan wine market can go: One is to continue pretending like we are in some prestigious, terroir diverse, mediterranean, appellation/cru quality region. Attempting to plant and produce only the creme de la creme of vinifera grape varieties, while the vines themselves are screaming, trying to tell us that they won’t survive here, let alone thrive. Continuing to keep forcing our outdated marketing ideas, until the soil is completely exhausted from the synthetic inputs.

The other direction is to let go of this delusional prestige, and accept that we are in a sandy loam desert that has an unpredictable and varying climate not suitable for “ultra premium vinifera grapes” (a sign I pass by on my drive from the vineyard)…whatever that means. We go back to farming hybrid varieties that are bred to endure the extreme temperature swings we have been experiencing. Hybrid varieties that demand approximately half of the water and half of the inputs needed to deal with pests and disease. Creative solutions that also involve our endangered soft fruit and apple farmers as well, blending grapes and orchard fruit to strike balance and complexity that would, in a SUITABLE environment, be achieved by classic vinifera grape varieties. Organic and regenerative farming become much more widespread when the crop is meant for the soil it rests in.

Thinking back through your portfolio of Ursa Major wines, since you first began the brand, is there a particular vintage that stands out to you as delivering the biggest (and tastiest) surprise and/or exceeding your expectations? Please describe the wine’s flavour and the circumstances around its vines/process that culminated in the results, to your best knowledge.

The first vintage and wine that comes to mind is the 2019 ‘Accustomed to the Dark’ Gamay Noir. This was the first big vintage for Ursa Major. Working with a grape that I had been around for most of my life, from a vineyard that I was born on and had finally started to convert to organics. This vintage also came with the excitement of not having much experience, which resulted in no preconceived anxieties or hang-ups. It was the perfect storm for experimentation and awe.

It was also during this vintage that I met my wife, Bree. The harvest season involved me courting her while she was working at a winery across the road. Tasting each other’s ferments, bringing imitation crab meat sandwiches for night shift lunch, and spilling explosive bottles of petnat all over the office desk.

Photo credit: Ryan Grifone

Beginning from the bottom up again: what part of the wine growing/making process are you most looking forward to?

I am most looking forward to planting and growing hybrid varieties, such as Marquette and Seyval Blanc; working with vines completely different to what we are used to.

Which one are you dreading?

The biggest source of dread is the waiting; waiting for the vines to come into production – everything in viticulture and winemaking is a test in patience.

What do you plan on doing differently this time around? What, if any, are the advantages of having this opportunity to start fresh in the Similkameen?

The advantage of starting fresh is just that, doing things from day one exactly the way we would want to do it. Being able to set ourselves up for financial and environmental sustainability long term. We feel so lucky to be farming in the Similkameen – there is a sincere, ‘Wild West’ feeling every time we come back here. The farming community is dedicated to organics and keeping things simple.

What sort of wine-drinker are you, these days? What do you look for when purchasing a wine (not yours) to drink at home?

My go to these days is Miller High Life, in a glass bottle (weirdly hard to find, but I found a local store that stocks it for cheap!). Some have called it “the Champagne of beers”. Wine wise, I usually reach for something light, fresh and reductive. I love reduction, especially in a rose…

What questions do you ask when you are ordering from a restaurant?

The most important question is usually the farming. If it’s farmed responsibly by good people, the rest is just extra!

What word or term used in the wine industry vernacular makes your skin crawl?

In the Okanagan, “ultra premium” or any other terms that try to convey a false sense of quality.

How about one word (existent or non-) that you would like to be used more?

“Creativity” or “practice”.

“The hope is for the Okanagan to go back to its humble roots, where the farmer is rewarded for the tending of their soil and the energy in their fruit…A pride in living modestly. Working for the sake of the process and not for the assumed (delusional?) promise of millions…Allowing the crops that flourish naturally here.”

Certain areas of the world are obviously renown for and protective of their winemaking traditions, which go back centuries. Relatively speaking, BC wine is still in its infancy. From this lens, how do you envision the Okanagan shaping up over the years? What do you hope will be its wine legacy, 100+ years from now?

The hope is for the Okanagan to go back to its humble roots, where the farmer is rewarded for the tending of their soil and the energy in their fruit. And for, hopefully, a move away from architectural, glass-and-concrete monstrosities that mask as “The Okanagan Experience”. A pride in living modestly. Working for the sake of the process and not for the assumed (delusional?) promise of millions…Allowing the crops that flourish naturally here and maybe taking a break from shoving Cabernet into the sand and rocks.

Picture yourself in a vineyard on the brink of your first harvest in the new vineyard. Close your eyes; what scents surround you?

The aromatic sagebrush; the horses from our neighbours farm across the road; the unwashed musk from my dog Ché; and my wife’s hair.

If these aromas had a song/sound and/or soundtrack, what would we hear?

“Bbbaby” by Son Little or “Only Memories Remain” by My Morning Jacket.

Credit: Ursa Major

One way that Ursa Major has always stood out (that we noted back in 2019) is their minimal, handwritten labels – and their personal, poetic, and sometimes cheeky names! Clearly, words mean a lot to you. Looking back at all of these must be similar to looking back through a diary of sorts since a lot of mood can be gleaned from the wine names. Can you please select one (or two) of your favourites, so far, and tell us the story behind it?

Oh boy, are you in for a treat this year! We decided to tell a linear story with the 2023 wines through a series of chapters, each chapter encompassing a four-to-five year period of my life, starting from childhood.

My previous favourites would have to be:

2022 ‘Exile, Love and Misunderstandings’ – this really sums up a lot of what I thought I had experienced, and thought that most of my family had experienced throughout the last century or so. Stories of exile from homelands, households, relationships, and yourself. Love: a word which has been used as an offering, a weapon, a tool, and as a sincere sentiment, occasionally. And misunderstandings; some which snowball into something entirely different and are held onto for years. I was wrong about most of this, and you will learn the realities (as did I) through the 2023 wines.

2021 ‘The House is on Fire’. A summation of apathy, delusion, manipulation, and the illest of intentions within a household.

How about a cringe-worthy one?

I can’t think of just one, but perhaps a small period of ‘sadboy’ cringe, circa vintage 2018, with such hits as: ‘Another Time Another Place’, ‘Counting the Days’, ‘Meeting of Self’…Although now that I think of it, I’m still in my ‘sadboy’ phase – it just got much more real and much much more sad.

Do you ever regret putting so much of yourself into Ursa Major?

A little bit. It’s been unbelievably cathartic to use the wines as extensions of myself and my personality. It’s a great way to tell stories that relate to the land, the process, the people, and well beyond. But that also means I have tied my own self worth to the quality and success of my work…which is a hellscape of anxiety and self-loathing. That is something that I am currently working through – not yet successfully, but it’s a work in progress.

If you could offer Rajen the Winemaker circa our first interview (2019ish) one piece of advice, what would it be?

I would tell him, “Hey, guy, relax! Most of it is in your head, and whatever is not can be dealt with, one step at a time. Whatever is out of your control is not worth wasting time and energy on.” But he probably wouldn’t listen; he tends to learn best when having to deal with the consequences himself.

Ursa Major Winery
Region: The Okanagan
Keremeos Vineyard

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