British Columbia wine industry legend, Harry McWatters, celebrates his 50th vintage
By Rebecca Dahl
In 1961 in a small North Vancouver neighbourhood, a 16-year-old Harry McWatters wasn’t doing typical teen activities; he was making wine in his parents’ home.
By the time he was 18, McWatters’ amateur wines were actually starting to be pretty good. He had learned to make wine from the influence of his Italian friends, who shared their wines with McWatters and his family in exchange for his mother’s baked goods. Fast-forward 56 years, and 72-year-old McWatters is celebrating his 50th vintage.
McWatters has become a legend in Canada’s wine industry. He started as a sales manager at Casabello Wines in Penticton in 1968. By 1980, he was the founding chair of the Okanagan Wine Festival Society and had founded Sumac Ridge Estate Winery. The ‘80s became pivotal for Canada’s wine industry, says McWatters.
“Canadians didn’t grow up generally on a wine culture,” said McWatters. “It took people travelling abroad and people having a wine background in their families bringing their culture to Canada. And that’s what we really saw through the ‘60s and then the ‘70s—people starting to drink light, sparkling wines.”
He founded Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in 1979, nestling the vineyard amongst the rolling hills of Summerland in the Okanagan Valley. It was the first operating estate winery in B.C., and contributed many other firsts to the industry, such as B.C.’s first traditional-method sparkling wine and Canada’s first-ever Meritage.
McWatters was the first to bring Meritage to Canada, making it a truly international term. A Meritage is a blend of two or more of the red or white “noble” Bordeaux grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot for the reds, and Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Sauvignon Vert for the whites).
“So, if you’re a winemaker or a winery, there’s tremendous opportunity to develop a personal style or a winery style,” said McWatters. “That may be Merlot-based or it may be Cabernet Sauvignon-based, but I think the goal for any Meritage producer—and certainly with our wines—is to make sure that the end result is greater than the sum of the parts.”
McWatters received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Okanagan University College, something he says is a highlight of his lengthy career. He was awarded the Golden (2002) and Diamond (2013) Jubilee Medals of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He was made a member of the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame in 2005. He was also the recipient of the prestigious Order of British Columbia in 2003.
Most recently, McWatters received the Spirited Industry Professional Award at the 2017 Vancouver International Wine Festival, the organization’s highest honour.
“I am a very proud British Columbian and my mission in life is to make sure there are B.C. wines in every household at all times,” said McWatters. “So being recognized by the province was a big deal to me. It was very humbling and I was very honoured.”
Now, McWatters is the president and CEO of ENCORE Vineyards Ltd., the home to TIME Winery, Evolve Cellars and McWatters Collection wines. His next endeavour is to open the TIME Winery facility, Okanagan’s first urban winery, in downtown Penticton.
The TIME Winery facility will be in a former theatre complex. There were four theatres originally in the complex, three of which will now house barrels upon barrels of fermenting TIME wine.
The last theatre will be maintained as such, but while movies and entertainers can own the stage occasionally, McWatters looks forward mostly to holding Saturday morning wine seminars at the urban winery.
“People will be able to come in on a Saturday morning and listen to half a dozen winemakers talk about one particular variety (of grapes) and their philosophy,” said McWatters. “I think that the largest potential audience for that may in fact be people working in the wine industry.”
McWatters says he has no intention of slowing down any time soon and is as dedicated as ever to producing high-quality wines that make a “powerful statement”.
“It’s not just a passion for wine; it’s what I do,” said McWatters. “It’s been 50 years of commitment to lifting the bar and seeing what we can do both in the vineyard and in the cellars.”