Wine pioneer’s legacy simply immeasurable

Death leaves hole in Canadian industry that can't be filled


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The Canadian wine industry lost one of its pioneers this week, when Harry McWatters died unexpectedly in his sleep on July 23 at the age of 74.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/07/2019 (1333 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Canadian wine industry lost one of its pioneers this week, when Harry McWatters died unexpectedly in his sleep on July 23 at the age of 74.

The effect McWatters had on the Canadian wine landscape — especially in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley — is immeasurable. For over half a century, McWatters made and sold wine in the Okanagan Valley, advocated for quality standards in B.C. and beyond and acted as an advocate for Canadian wines in this country and abroad.

McWatters started his career in the wine industry at Casabello Wines in the late 1960s before co-founding Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in Summerland in 1979 with Lloyd Schmidt.

Sumac Ridge was the province’s first estate winery (meaning they only use fruit they grow themselves, versus purchasing grapes from others), and within a couple of years, was producing wines made from Vitis vinifera grapes — so-called “noble” grapes used by wineries around the world, rather than Vitis lambrusca or hybrid varieties that had been commonly grown in B.C. until that point.

One of the first wines produced at Sumac Ridge was their Gewürztraminer, which the winery still produces today.

McWatters also saw the valley’s great potential for sparkling wines, and Sumac Ridge’s Steller’s Jay brut was at the forefront of B.C. bubblies made in the traditional method from Vitis vinifera grapes.

He also saw the potential for red-wine grapes such as those grown in France’s Bordeaux region — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and the like — in southern areas of the Okanagan, particularly on the Black Sage Bench near Osoyoos. Merlot is now the most widely planted red-wine grape in B.C.

Not content to rest on his laurels (he never was), McWatters purchased another property in the Okanagan Valley that became Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards (now called See Ya Later Ranch). McWatters sold both Sumac Ridge and Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards to Vincor (now called Arterra) in 2000, staying on to manage and consult at both properties before retiring in 2008.

But retirement was a misnomer, and everyone in the B.C. wine industry knew it. In 2013, McWatters established Time Estate Winery; in 2015, he started Evolve Cellars; then, last year, he set up Time Winery & Kitchen in Penticton, creating the city’s first urban winery. He also worked as a consultant with B.C. wineries such as the Lillooet-area Fort Berens Estate Winery.

On a bigger-picture level, McWatters recognized the importance of establishing a set of standards for wines made from grapes grown in Canada. He helped found the Vintners Quality Alliance Canada, the governing body for grape-growing, winemaking and labelling standards, and served as its first chairman.

He also recognized the importance of bringing tourists to the wineries, helping establish the British Columbia Wine Institute, the Okanagan Wine Festival and the B.C. Hospitality Foundation.

For his lifelong efforts, McWatters was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from Okanagan University College, received the Order of British Columbia and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal (McWatters met the Queen in 1997 at Canada House in London).

But those accolades pale in comparison to the outpouring of tributes being written and posted by those in the wine industry who knew McWatters. Anyone who met him can attest to his seemingly endless passion and energy for promoting both his own wines and the B.C. wine industry in general. He could engage as easily with winemakers and wine professionals as he could the general public.

Most importantly, McWatters was a kind, caring and genuine man. His passing leaves a hole in the Canadian wine industry that won’t ever be filled. Twitter: @bensigurdson

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