Harry McWatters: Personal Reflections on The Architect of Canadian Wine

In Fond Memory of Harry

By David Lawrason

Whenever I was in the company of Harry McWatters we had a glass of wine in our hands. Very often it was his wine, but whether his or not he always loved talking about what was in his glass, as do I. And I enjoyed wine with him often over the 35 years I knew him despite living on opposite sides of the country. I can’t say that we were drinking buddies in the classic sense, but there was certainly a bond.

Harry McWatters

Harry doing what he loved

I first met him in June 1984, at the tasting bar at Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, which he had founded four years earlier, after cajoling and hectoring the authorities to get the first estate winery license in B.C. I was in the Okanagan for the first time, at the tail end of a three month west coast winery tour that turned out to form the basis of my wine writing career. I had just come from California and Oregon, and I thought Sumac Ridge was kind of cute, complete with its notoriously difficult nine-hole golf course. I swear there wasn’t a flat lie anywhere on that course, and Harry’s mischievous side took great delight in that fact. He claimed it was the toughest nine holes in B.C. At the tasting bar that day Harry was quietly proud of what he was pouring – at that point almost all whites. I remember the gewürztraminer in particular, which was to become a Sumac Ridge signature.

It would be several years before I would return to the Okanagan in the very early-nineties, once The Globe and Mail decided my wine column at the time should be national in its scope. But I had certainly kept track of Harry in the meantime as he led the charge toward the instalment of VQA in British Columbia in 1989. And I am sure I ran into him occasionally in Toronto/Niagara as he worked with the VQA founders in Ontario to coordinate efforts between Canada’s two largest wine regions. He must have travelled to Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara countless times in those years, sometimes to sit in boardrooms, sometimes to preside at tastings.

He was vociferously proud of VQA, not just as symbol of the maturing Canadian wine industry, but as a guarantee to Canadian consumers that the wine was 100% BC or Ontario  – exactly what the label said it was – which of course is the fundamental purpose of an appellation system. Many B.C. wineries did not join VQA, and that always made Harry steam a little. Right up until last year our conversations would often turn to this point, and he just could not bring himself to embrace wines that did not bear a VQA logo. As if he could not see how place of origin could not be the most important thing a bottle of wine had to say.

Tasting with Harry at Canadian Culinary Championships 2019, along with Janet Dorozynski, Sid Cross and Rhys Pender MW.

Tasting with Harry at Canadian Culinary Championships 2019, along with Janet Dorozynski, Sid Cross and Rhys Pender MW.

Come to think of it, the nineties, with VQA well launched and the Free Trade bogeyman laid to rest, were perhaps the best years to date for relations between the Ontario and B.C. wine industries (aka the Canadian wine industry), driven largely by large thinking from Harry and his very close friend Christine Coletta. Harry had been instrumental in creating the BC Wine Institute to which he was appointed the first chairman, and Chris Coletta was its first executive director. Her forte was marketing, and she, along with Harry, created the first and only national Canadian wine roadshow that sought to bind the fledgling industries together. She was also the author of several media “fam” trips to the Okanagan that always included Sumac Ridge and the spectacular Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards (later named See Ya Later Ranch) that Harry purchased in 1995 (often the source of Sumac Ridge gewurz). Sometimes my trips to the Okanagan revolved around the spring or fall Okanagan Wine Festivals, which again Harry had helped create.

He was everywhere, and he was having a huge impact on my career and influencing my caring about Canadian wine on a national level.

On Canada Day in what must have been about 1998 or 1999, I found myself in the Okanagan while on a road trip through the Rockies with my two pre-teen sons. Harry invited us to his small beach cabin squeezed on the narrow shoreline beneath the bluffs north of Summerland. He loaned us a small boat and fishing rods and my younger son caught what Harry claimed was one of the only decent-sized fish to ever come out of Lake Okanagan. He made my son feel quite special. He took us across the lake to Rattlesnake Island where we bobbed, picnicked and swam off the boat in the heat of an Okanagan summer. That night we slept over in his small houseboat with waves lapping against the aluminum hull. To this day my boys would ask about Harry every time I went to B.C., and he always asked after them.

I don’t remember the year or the specific occasion but I do remember a grand party at Sumac Ridge. There were hundreds in attendance on a gorgeous, fairly hot summer’s eve. And Harry was out in front of the winery greeting everyone with flutes of sparkling wine, or “bubble” as he loved to call it. He may have just recently begun to produce sparkling wine at Sumac Ridge, again one of the early adopters. In any event he was extremely proud and jovial in that moment, and I remember thinking how happy he was.

He sold Sumac Ridge and See Ya Later Ranch to Constellation Brands in 2000. I, along with many, thought he would retire. But of course we were all wrong, and he set off on a new path as ambitious as any before. Much of his attention in these years was focused on the Black Sage Bench, south of Oliver, where he still owned his own vineyards. He had been the first to plant merlot and other Bordeaux red varieties there in the early 90s, and the region was taking off. He began to develop his TIME and McWatters Collection brands, and started to build a winery on the Black Sage Bench that he would later sell while still under construction. He also established Evolve Wines near Summerland with his daughter Christa Lee McWatters. From this era I do remember a lovely dinner in his home one evening when he wanted to introducing his new winemaker Laurence Saunders who had come out from Niagara.

Harry with Calgary Gold Medal chef JinHee Lee at CCC in Kelowna in 2017

Harry with Calgary Gold Medal chef JinHee Lee at CCC in Kelowna in 2017

The culmination of the TIME project, just last year, was the opening of TIME Winery in an abandoned and grandly restored movie theatre in downtown Penticton. It seemed a crazy idea, but it was a typically big and bold idea, and Harry dove in. I happened to be in town in the early stages of the conversion when walls were being ripped down. He toured me though shambles, stopping every few feet to explain what was going to be happening in each space. He and his family celebrated the first anniversary of the winery just one week before he passed away.

In 2010, Gold Medal Plates (now Canada’s Great Kitchen Party) decided to locate its annual Canadian Culinary Championship (CCC) in Kelowna. The local organizing committee asked Harry to come aboard, which he did of course, and he was made an Honorary Ambassador of the event. I can’t tell you how many boards he sat on, and not all of them related to the wine industry.  Everyone wanted a piece of his common sense, acumen and frankly his compassion. He continued to surprise me by how he much he knew about so many things going in B.C. and indeed all of Canada.

My main benefit of Harry’s association with the CCC, to which I am the National Wine Advisor, was getting an annual opportunity to meet with him, and his lovely wife Lisa, for a weekend of wine, food and socializing. He immediately agreed to join a panel to judge the CCC Wine of the Year. The winning wine in each of the ten cities was sent to Kelowna for a taste off, and he just loved this idea of comparing excellent wines of different styles from different parts of the country.  He took the judging sessions very seriously and loved the discussion around the wines.

Which, as I said at the outset, was one of his great passions. Perhaps his core passion. What’s remarkable is that he had the creativity, confidence and courage, and sheer force of personality, to forge such a successful career from that passion – to the point that he is now being widely and deservedly hailed as an architect of the modern Canadian wine industry. Harry was indeed a builder. And I didn’t really realize until his passing and this reflection, how much he influenced the building and shaping of my career. I am indebted to him forever, as any who cares about Canadian wine should be.