Rajen Toor is the owner and winemaker at his own label, Ursa Major Winery as well as Desert Hills Estate Winery. He has been building a new forward-thinking wine community in the Okanagan. He is raising lots of questions about conventional approach to winemaking, challenging the old timers and thriving to build Okanagan wine future more bright, open minded and fun.
So what exactly does he do? He is currently in his third year in charge of organic transition of nearly 68 acres of the vineyard. Born and raised on Black Sage Bench in the South Okanagan Valley, Rajen grew up on his family’s vineyard of Desert Hills Estate Winery. For over 20 years, they have been farming in conventional way – using chemicals on the vines and on the soil. Moving away from such long doing is not easy. The transition to organic farming and sustainable practices requires time and patience
(it can take up to 6 years!), but they are slowly and steadily building better soils through beneficial weeds, cover crops and composting.
“Our long term plan is to build as much organic matter in the soil. What we are trying to do here is to create an ecosystem where the vine will sustain and regulate itself instead of us adding micronutrients after micronutrients to balance everything up. We need to go towards more quality based industry rather than quantity based industry.” says Rajen. “We use weeds to benefit the vineyard and plant some cover crops like radish, peas, winter rye as they will open up the soil and let it breathe. Also, they give nitrogen into the soil. The more evenly balanced the nitrogen is in the grape, the easier and more consistently it will ferment in the cellar. We, winemakers, don’t have to do much extra work.”
Ursa Major started in 2016 as his passion project, and now it is using predominantly organic grapes from the converted vineyard. His low-intervention winemaking techniques also allow the land and fruit to speak through the wine.
“My idea of Ursa Major was to take these grapes that we have been growing for so long and really experiment with them. Everybody in the valley seems to do the same thing with the same grapes, so I figured that it would be kind of fun to see what else these grapes can do and see if there is another side personality to them.”
Rajen gravitates towards unpretentious and more complex side of the personality, and he very much likes to play around with lighter, more savory, spicier green kind of profile with the red and the white varietals.
In every step of the winemaking, he tries to be as hands-off as possible to let such personality shine. With most of Ursa Major wines, he uses barrels and wild yeasts for fermentation and as little sulphur as possible when bottling. As a result, his wine expresses something new and unique every year, and that is something his clientele is looking forward to drinking.
Now what is next for Ursa Major? “The next step is to educate people who are stuck in the old fashioned way of more quick, easy, and cost efficient farming. They don’t realize if we keep on doing that, the soil will be dead in 10 years time.”
With a small community of young generations and like-minded people, Rajen is shouting out for an evolution to a better, long lasting and sustainable future. So the story of Ursa Major constellation (the Great Bear constellation) goes, a visiting bear and her cubs would come and sneak into the vineyard and eat the whole rows of grapes just prior to harvest. His parents used to say that the bear was just trying to feed her family from these grapes, just as they were. Ursa Major is all about a full circle of life.
10 QUESTIONS with Ursa Major
Q1: How was your summer 2021?
Rajen(R): “It has been a roller coster. Lots of ups and downs. For myself, for my partner and for some of our peers, it has been an awakening year as well. Last year, we were all staying home and it kind of forced us to face ourselves and go inwards instead of outwards. This year, taking that introspection, we are realizing a lot of things that we have normalized are not normal. A lot of things that we have been doing are not sustainable: be it farming, be it personal, or be it relationships. So I would say it was an awakening roller coaster of the year.”
Q2: Climate change is one of the most pressing issues today. How have the recent wild fires affected your business or your approach to winemaking and farming?
R: “We have been forced to realize that if we don’t change our current conventional farming practices, we can’t be doing it for much longer. If we want to keep growing grapes and making wine for another 20 years, we have to adapt and we have to evolve. Trying to force all the older people in the valley and the whole industry to change has been difficult, because they have already done it for 20-30 years, so it is not urgent for them. Everybody needs to pitch in and adapt to keep it going.”
Q3: On top of the climate change, there is a pandemic. How do you see your winery evolving through the pandemic time and in a post pandemic world?
R: “Last year, we did our business mostly online. Especially with my Ursa Major, I utilized social media to connect with my clients. I try to make my wines in extension of my personality as it is my personal brand. When people were staying home and drinking inside, it has been really nice to give them the whole context, not just a bottle of wine but also experience. I usually give them a small play list with the wine and make people sit down and enjoy it slowly. This year, it has been nice to actually see those people face to face. I did a couple of dinners in Vancouver restaurants. It has been a nice switch to pour the wine for them, see their reactions and have conversations with them.”
Q4: What is the biggest joy working in a winery?
R: “Being able to put my own personality and myself into the wines. Being able to tell people who I am and what I am going through through the wine. For me, honestly this whole process is a personal form of therapy.”
Q5: If you were not in the wine industry, what would you be?
R: “Actually, I used to act for 5-6 years in LA and in Vancouver! I would not go back there but something of a creative outlet would be nice. Maybe film making. Something to put myself into.”
Q6: What is your current favorite wine and how would you like to enjoy it?
R: “My favorite of this year is definitely Cab Franc Rose. We make Cab Franc all the time with Desert Hills Estate Winery, but we always make it in very similar style – dark, red, bold. I really wanted to have that Cab Franc profile of spicy, green, savory, and jalapeño flavors in a white wine and it came out really well.”
Q7: “Where is your go-to-spots when you are off work?”
R: “My partner and I live right on the river, so we spend a lot of time there on a nice small spot with some wine especially in the summer. We have a dog as well and he likes to swim there as well. Also, for food outing, there is a new pasta place in Oliver called Popolo Cafe. They make fresh past every day and it is so so good!”
Q8: How can people enjoy Okanagan in the fall?
R: “The fall in the Okanagan is amazing because the harvest is happening! There is such an energy and buzz throughout the whole valley. Everything is moving, everything is fermenting, and all the roads are filled with trucks with grapes going back and forth. Colours are absolutely gorgeous. When you pick the grape, the leaves start to die and you can see a gradation of colours from green turning into yellow, red and brown throughout the whole vineyard. Usually the first half of October is so beautiful here.”
Q9: How is this year’s harvest looking like?
R: “Very challenging with a lot of factors – labor shortage, wild fires, drought, weird vintage, weird weather… It is going to be a bit of challenge and that only means it is going to be a wine maker’s vintage. We have to get into our magic tool box and do a lot of work in the cellar!”
Q10: In a few words, how would you best describe Ursa Major?
R: “It is an extension of myself. With each bottle with a label, a name and a wine and a music, it is a kind of summary of whatever I am going through at the time. I always find putting all my thoughts and words into the bottle is an easier way of presenting myself to people.”