If Harry McWatters was in the room, you couldn’t miss him. Not just because he was tall and generously proportioned, with a shock of white hair that drew the eye like a beacon. But because he was always at the centre of the liveliest crowd in the place, pouring wine and leading the boisterous conversation.
So it was with no small measure of shock and sorrow that British Columbia’s tight-knit wine community learned this week that McWatters had died, suddenly but peacefully in his sleep, on Tuesday, July 23. He was 74.
His loss is immense. As long as there has been a B.C. wine industry, there has been Harry McWatters, and it’s hard to imagine what it will be like without him.
McWatters began his career in sales, at Casabello Wines, in 1968, and went on to celebrate 50 harvests in this province, an extraordinary milestone in such a young industry.
His was a career of firsts. In 1979, he founded Sumac Ridge, B.C.’s first operating estate winery, where he also opened the province’s first winery restaurant, produced its first commercially successful sparkling wine and became the first to crack the $50-a-bottle price ceiling.
More significantly, perhaps, he helped found the Vintners Quality Alliance Canada, the trade association that monitors national wine standards, and served as its first chairman. “Whatever people think of VQA,” McWatters once said, “I firmly believe we would not have built a B.C. wine industry without it.”
He was also the founding chairman of the B.C. Wine Institute, B.C. Hospitality Foundation, British Columbia Wine Information Society and the Okanagan Wine Festival Society, and sat on countless other boards. He was a visionary and tireless leader in the evolution of quality wine growing, making and marketing in this province.
And he made great wine.
After selling Sumac Ridge to Vincor Canada in 2000, McWatters continued as president of Sumac Ridge and See Ya Later Ranch and vice-president of Vincor until 2008, when he “retired.” He went on to establish TIME Estate Winery in 2013 and Evolve Cellars in 2015; in 2018, he moved TIME Winery & Kitchen to the remodelled environs of the old Pemnar Theatre in downtown Penticton, and created a brand-new way to experience wine for the entire Okanagan Valley.
Along the way he picked up a barrel full of accolades: an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Okanagan University College, the Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Queen, the Order of British Columbia, Winery of the Year, Wine of the Year. Perhaps his most satisfying achievement, though, was being named 2017’s Spirited Industry Professional by his peers at the Vancouver International Wine Festival.
It’s fair to say that he affected every single person who grows, makes, sells, serves or simply enjoys BC wine.
On social media, the response to the news was swift and sorrowful.
“His legacy is massive here in Canada and around the world,” Anita Stewart, the founder of Food Day Canada, wrote on Facebook. “Any winery, any vintner, any member of the VQA stands on his shoulders.”
And on Twitter, winemaker Sandra Oldfield, who monitors the weekly #BCWineChat on Wednesdays, said, “If you’ve got a #BCWine laying around tonight I suggest you open it and toast to Harry McWatters, who passed away today. We’re here mainly because of him.”
Here at Vitis, we are heartbroken to hear of his loss, and send our deepest condolences to the McWatters family.
Memorial details will be announced in the coming days, but until then, the family has asked for privacy as they deal with the shock and magnitude of their loss.
In the meantime, those who want to share their memories – and there will be many – can join in tonight’s (July 24) #BCWineChat on Twitter, which will be dedicated to McWatters, starting at 8 p.m. The stories, we know, will be as memorable as the man himself.
@ Vitis Magazine