The man who put B.C. on the international wine map

his year marks Harry McWatters’s 50th vintage in the Canadian wine industry, and at 71, he’s opening another winery

As a twentysomething, Harry McWatters’s preferred way to spend a summer night was driving his 1965 Beaumont hot rod from Vancouver to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. He had a few cool cars back then, but the Beaumont was a favourite, with a custom burnt-amber paint job and jet-black upholstery.

He’d cruise up and down the valley, showing off his wheels at car shows in Vernon, Kelowna and Penticton, a different show each weekend. “And on Saturday nights, there was always a dance and a party,” says McWatters, who is now 71. “I was a real car nut until I became a wine nut.”

Then, he says, “my passion changed.”

This fall, McWatters will mark his 50th vintage in the Canadian wine industry. His career has tracked the growth of British Columbia’s wine industry, which has exploded from a handful of wineries in the late 1960s to at least 350 today. McWatters was instrumental in the national adoption of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), an organization that regulates and markets Canadian wines. He brought the term Meritage (used to describe red Bordeaux-style blends) to Canada, and helped create the British Columbia Wine Institute, which promotes B.C. wines around the world. Along the way, he’s created some of the province’s most highly regarded wines – something he continues to do.

“Harry McWatters has been the face and the heart of the British Columbia wine industry for 50 years,” wine expert Tony Aspler says. “His contribution to the Canadian wine scene is as large as his physical presence. He’s Canada’s Robert Mondavi.”

McWatters’s current job is president of Encore Vineyards, which will celebrate a new opening this summer. The brand-new Time Winery will be located in downtown Penticton, in the vintage PenMar Theatre building. Time Winery will have production facilities as well as a tasting room, patio, shop, theatre and lounge. McWatters hopes the city’s first urban winery can give visitors who may not be leaving town a chance to visit a real winery – not just a wine shop – and learn more about how good wine is made.

“We’re a full-fledged working winery. The only thing we don’t have there is a vineyard,” McWatters says. “We’ll be running a very extensive wine-education program, and we’re encouraging other wineries to participate, too.”

McWatters was born in Toronto to parents that held relaxed views about children and alcohol. Even at a very young age, he’d have his own little glass on the table. “We lived in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood, and I drank wine on a frequent basis,” he recalls. “Every Sunday, we’d have wine with dinner. My parents were very liberal about it, but I’m talking about two ounces, at most, at dinner. I brought my kids up the same way.”

When he was 10, his family moved to Vancouver. They spent summers visiting the Okanagan Valley, which for a kid was much more about fun than wine. But as McWatters got older, he started to enjoy the drink that had always been there, and to want to learn more about how and why people made it. In 1968, he began a job as a sales manager with Casabella Wines in Vancouver, where he learned about the process of wine making and met many of the restaurateurs and retailers he calls friends today.

In 1977, he moved to the Okanagan Valley with his then-wife and young children. Three years later, he took a leap of wine-loving faith and founded Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in Summerland. “We mortgaged our house. We put everything on the line,” he recalls. “It was a struggle; there’s no question. But it was also really exciting. We’d work really late and go home, and then get up and go back first thing in the morning.”

Today, the wine industry in B.C. employs 12,000 people, and has an annual economic impact of $2.8-billion, but 40 years ago it was minuscule. One of McWatters’s big breaks came in 1983, when the Queen visited the province, and wines from Sumac Ridge were selected for the official functions. “People would come in to the winery and ask for the wine the Queen had,” McWatters recalls with a laugh. “They’d buy a case of it. If it was good enough for the Queen, they’d say, it was good enough for them.”

Sumac Ridge wines were (and still are) highly acclaimed, but his years there were not always easy. Perhaps no challenge was more stressful than the passage of the North American free-trade agreement in 1988.

“Free trade took away any preferential market,” McWatters says. Plus, he adds, it’s much easier for Americans to produce “commodity wines,” or inexpensive wines made in large quantities. “Our cost of land is high. Our cost of labour is high,” he says. “And we’re at a greater risk here because of our weather.”

Rather than compete on quantity, he decided to compete in quality. “Our wines don’t have to taste like Bordeaux or Burgundy, but they have to be comparable,” he says. “There has to be something in them that stylistically relates to the great wines of the world.”

At the time, most Canadian wineries grew hybrid grapes, known for their ability to survive tough winters more than for producing good wine. McWatters and others replanted with vinifera grapes, which aren’t as hardy, but are used to make the world’s best wines. “Vinifera was the way to go,” he says, pointing out that members of the B.C. wine industry won more than 1,200 international awards in the past year alone.

Vancouver wine critic Anthony Gismondi says McWatters’s success didn’t come just from planting the right grapes, but recognizing exactly where they should be planted. “I believe he has never really been recognized for his greatest achievement, namely planting 115 acres of mostly Bordeaux varieties on the Black Sage Bench, in East Oliver, back in 1992,” Gismondi says. “Those vines have spawned a multibillion-dollar industry that hasn’t really looked back ever since.”

In 1995, McWatters bought what is now See Ya Later Ranch, a winery located west of Okanagan Falls. Five years later, he sold that and Sumac Ridge to Vincor Canada, the country’s largest wine company, and became Vincor’s vice-president. In 2006, when Vincor was sold to Constellation Brands, a massive alcohol conglomerate based in the United States, McWatters stayed on as president of the Sumac Ridge Estate Wine Group and vice-president of Vincor.

In 2008, he announced his retirement, but that didn’t last very long. He had already started tinkering with two new wines – a Meritage red blend and a chardonnay – for a brand-new label. “I still love a good Meritage,” he says. “I appreciate single varieties for what they are, but we can make a better red wine by blending. The end result is greater than the sum of its parts.”

At the time, he didn’t intend to release new bottles under his own name – “So often it’s about stroking an ego,” he says – but by then, McWatters was working with his now-adult children. His son, Darren McWatters, is Encore Vineyard’s production manager, and his daughter, Christa-Lee McWatters Bond, is director of sales and marketing. They all had a talk.

“‘It’s our name, too,’” he recalls them telling him. “‘And we think it will be worth more when you’re not here – not that we’re rushing you off the planet or anything.’” He took their advice, and the McWatters Collection was born, followed quickly by the other labels.

Certainly, McWatters, who turns 72 in May, has earned his many accolades: Two months ago, he received the Spirited Industry Professional Award, a lifetime-achievement recognition, at the Vancouver Wine Festival; last month, the 2014 McWatters Collection Chardonnay won gold at the prestigious Chardonnay du Monde wine competition in France. But he says being called a legend “just makes me feel old.”

“I get a lot of different names. I get called the father of the new wine industry. The grandfather. The godfather,” he says. “I think it’s just the fact that I’ve been here longer than pretty much anybody else in the wine business.” Longer than the Beaumont hot rod, too, which he sold years ago to finance one of his first B.C. properties.

In a way, McWatters’s life has come full circle. Time Winery is only three kilometres from where he first worked when he moved to the Okanagan Valley. The building itself already holds happy memories: The PenMar Theatre, which was built in 1956, was once one of his favourite places to hang out.

“I went on a date there in 1957, on a Saturday afternoon in summer with a girl,” he recalls with a laugh. “I took her to a matinee and it cost me 25 cents for admission with a soft drink and a popcorn.

“Wines were a lot cheaper back then, too.”

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