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From engineer to winemaker, an Okanagan success story

Sidhu moved from India to the Okanagan with his family in 1993

It’s no secret that many who immigrate to Canada cannot find work in their chosen field from their home country.

That was a reality Karnail Singh Sidhu faced when he brought his family from India to the Okanagan in 1993.

Sidhu was a qualified electrical engineer back in Punjab and had worked for a company he compared to BC Hydro, but Canada refused to recognize his credentials.

“They’re always looking for skilled people from other countries, but when the skilled people come here they very quickly learn that they don’t recognize their credentials. It’s still happening today.”

Not being able to work as an engineer, Sidhu went back to his family roots of organic farming.

“I started actively looking for work at different wineries and in ‘96 I was hired by Summerhill. That’s where I worked for ten years.”

Sidhu fell in love with the Okanagan’s wine industry and during a lunch with his brothers decided to start a venture of his own.

“We saw the bottles and at that time they were around $15 and we thought it’s not a bad idea to start a winery, you’re just selling juice. For $15 a bottle, that’s a good deal.”

That is how Kalala Organic Estate Winery on West Kelowna’s upper bench was born.

Kalala started making wine in 2006 and opened to the public with a wine shop and tasting room on June 5, 2008.

The winery focuses on organic practises and has 20 labels including reds, whites, roses and icewines. Kalala also produces various orchard-pressed fruit juices.

Having worked in the wine industry for several years, Sidhu was no stranger to the difficulties the Okanagan would pose in the vineyard.

“There are always challenges. But one of the biggest challenges we’ve had, we opened the winery during a recession,” Sidhu said. “I think the whole industry, what it’s facing now… It’s really hard to get any local workforce and the biggest challenge is getting young farmers.”

And when it comes to fires, floods, extreme heat and other weather events, Sidhu said it’s all part of the organic process.

“To me being organic means we try to stay as close as we can to nature. It doesn’t bother me. Things happen, it’s nature. If it’s beyond your control, don’t worry about it. You can try to manipulate whatever you can to do your best. That’s my attitude.”

Sidhu said you can complain all you want, but it isn’t going to make things change.

Proud of the organic focus of the winery, Kalala regularly engages in research projects on organic vineyards and winemaking technology.

Sidhu uses a lot of knowledge from his engineering background in his current business path.

“I think education makes you think broadly and think critically and whichever field you pick you will be successful.”

Despite the difficulties faced in the business, Sidhu claimed no year is a bad year as long as you learn something.

“I always say one thing and I tell my kids this too, you go to school to learn not to be something. You will be whoever you want to be later if you learn a lot in school. What you learn in school you can apply to your life everywhere.”

To Sidhu, success isn’t about the financial gain, “it’s what you learn in those years.”

Since the business opened, Kalala has received several awards for its wines at many different levels of competition.

“To me, the company is the same as like other sports companies. All the players aren’t going to win, they are all good but some win and some lose… I can’t say it’s only the best player who wins it. They’re all the best, they came there because they are the best. All the wine we make in the Okanagan, I think we make very good wine and we make world-class wine. We should not hesitate to compete anywhere in the world with an Okanagan wine.”

The first award-winning wine from Kalala came the same year it opened to the public. In 2008, the winery won a People’s Choice Award with its Pinot Gris.

“You do get excited when it’s the very first one. I don’t get excited too much, and sometimes my wife complains,” Sidhu laughed. “But it is a nice feeling the first time you’re in and win, people like your wine, that’s an enjoyable moment.”

The awards are just a small part of why Sidhu loves what he does. He said it’s ultimately the people that make it all worthwhile.

“We have people from all over the world and you learn a lot about different cultures. In my case, people ask lots of questions about me, too. I do look different than most of the industry. It’s great to meet the different people from all different corners of the world and it’s very satisfying when people love your product.”

Kalala currently has four vineyards in the Okanagan equalling over 41 acres. Sidhu said they purchased Little Straw Vineyards from the Slamka family when they retired in November 2021.

“Coming from another country, a different culture and different language, I think it’s very fulfilling and I’m proud to be in the situation I am in today.”

About the Author: Black Press Media Staff

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