Wine industry pioneer honoured
A leader in the Okanagan and provincial wine industry has been honoured with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Harry McWatters received the award that honours significant contributions and achievements by Canadians from Penticton MLA Bill Barisoff.
“It certainly is an honour, but I think of it as really recognition for the strides the wine industry has made. I don’t think if the industry hadn’t grown the way it has and garnered the recognition it has, that I would be recognized,” said McWatters.
McWatters has been involved in the wine industry for over 40 years and was the founder of the province’s first estate winery, Sumac Ridge Estate in 1980. He is also the founder of See Ya Later Ranch Estate Winery in 1995. He later sold Sumac Ridge to Vincor Canada and continued as president of Sumac Ridge and See Ya Later Ranch, as well as being vice-president of Vincor Canada. In 2008 he “retired” as president of Sumac Ridge and established Vintage Consulting Group Inc. and the Okanagan Wine Academy.
While that alone seems to be a lot for one person to take on, McWatters led a group of wineries and local businesses to establish the Okanagan Wine Festival Society in 1980 and acted as founding president. At that time he was also appointed by the province to chair the newly formed B.C. Wine Institute, a position he held for five years and served as a director for 17 years. The association represents winery operators and grape growers and helped guide industry through the trade challenges presented by General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North America Free Trade Agreement.
“I have been in the business for 45 years and we have seen a lot of ups and downs, but the most pivotal change was the introduction of free trade. What came out of that is the industry in British Columbia banding together and B.C. forming the B.C. Wine Institute working as a united front and developing and implementing very rigid VQA wine standards and that has made a huge difference. Once we got the consumers to be aware of what that is all about and to recognize VQA as a trademark of quality, it has made a huge difference,” said McWatters.
McWatters was instrumental in founding VQA Canada, a trade association that spearheaded the development of national wine standards for Canadian vintners, and served as the first chairman. In 2001, he was presented with an honorary doctor of laws degree from Okanagan University College in recognition for the pivotal role he played in the development of both B.C’s and Canada’s wine industry. At the time VQA standards were implemented there was only 14 wineries in the province, today there are well over 200.
“There are a lot more people making a contribution and growing the industry in the last 20 years than there was before. I can tell you that 20 years ago, it would have been very difficult to predict for anybody that we would have that many wineries,” he said.
McWatters said not many believed the Okanagan would become the fertile grape growing land it has become. He said part of the growth also has to do with the consumers becoming more educated about wine.
“If you look at the kinds of wines produced 45 years ago, they were a mirror reflection of what the consumer wanted that day,” said McWatters. “Today the consumer is a lot more sophisticated and are looking for a wide range of varieties and styles. They are demanding more intense flavours which is a very positive thing.”
As the industry moves forward, McWatters said success will depend on looking inward and raising the bar on quality and continuing to be aggressive in marketing within the province, the country and outside the borders. Already many wineries have been recognized nationally and internationally, earning medals and awards for best of variety, class and show.
“For a relatively small industry, we garner a tremendous number of awards. What we need to do now is convert that into sales, where we have strategic markets that make sense to go in a modest way where it will be profitable and people will embrace the style of wines we raise,” said McWatters.
Also receiving the medal from Barisoff were David Kampe from Penticton, Sue Irvine from Naramata and Phyllis Papineau from Peachland.