VOICE 126 – Ursa Major Winery

Rajen Toor, owner and winemaker at Ursa Major Winery

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.

– Coming up next is VOICE 10 QUESTIONS with Rajen!