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Five decades of making wines

The grandfather of the BC’s wine industry looks back on a 50-year career

Harry McWatters is celebrating two milestones this month.

His new TIME Winery, in downtown Penticton, is expected to go into full operation at the end of the month, and he’s celebrating his 50th vintage.

Looking back half a century, McWatters said he could never have predicted the success the B.C. wine industry has seen.

“When I first started, selling Okanagan wine was a challenge,” said McWatters. In the 1960s, he explained, the wine consumer was still being educated.

“I often joked there were two kinds of consumers. Those that took it out of the brown paper bag, and those that didn’t,” said McWatters, adding that contrary to popular belief, the wines of that time weren’t all bad.

“The best wines we made in the 60s and 70s were our toughest sell. They were dry and they did show a lot of promise,” he said. “There were some good wines and there were wines that showed promise.

“The wines that were consumed back in the 60s were typically higher alcohol, sweeter red wines.”

But there was a lack of demand, with those consumers drinking fine wines committed to European wines. The industry would have moved faster, according to McWatters, if there had been greater demand in those early days.

Another stumbling block was the inability to import some of the European vines, but the biggest change came with the 1988 Free Trade Agreement.

“The first time we had a burning platform for the whole industry to get behind was free trade. It really looked like doom and gloom for the industry,” said McWatters.

The FTA brought with it reduced government protection, and by the time the dust had settled, there was far less acreage under vine.

“We had less than a thousand acres to rebuild on,” said McWatters. What was left, though, was a foundation with a higher average quality of grape production.

“It really forced the industry to band together. We recognized we weren’t going to make it in an industry of bulk wine,” said McWatters, noting that there were just 14 wineries at the time.

The change in direction brought with it a focus on raising the bar, not just in terms of the quality of wines, but the image the B.C. wine industry was presenting to the world.

“It really put a spotlight on those wines that were quality and B.C. grown,” said McWatters.

Another outcome of that was the B.C. Wine Institute, which McWatters was founding chair of, then the launch of Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) certification, setting standards for quality, origin, vintage and varietals.

“I think VQA was the most pivotal change in the Canadian wine industry for recognition of quality,” said McWatters.

What came out of the transition was an increase in the number of small wineries. McWatters remembers making a prediction in 1990 that by 2000, the industry could be back to the same number of acres, with as many as 50 wineries.

“By 2000 we were well past. I think we were at about 5,000 or 6,000 acres. So we had substantially more (acreage) and we had about 65 wineries,” said McWatters. “People though I was crazy when I predicted that we could have that many acres or that many wineries.”

Wine has always been a part of McWatters’ life, growing up in a household where they drank wine regularly, in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood in Toronto.

“For as long as I can remember, on Sundays I would always get a couple of ounces of wine with dinner,” said McWatters.

Even after moving to North Vancouver, the tradition of wine at meals continued, at least until the young McWatters moved out on his own.

“I left home when I was 16, and as a result didn’t have access to wine. So I started making wine when I was 16 years old,” he said. “They were probably better in my memory than they were in reality.

“When I was 18, I was making wines with friends that were importing grapes from California.”

By 1968, McWatters’ interest in wines landed him a job as sales manager at Casbello Wines. It wasn’t long after that he acquired the Sumac Ridge golf course, where he built B.C.’s first estate winery, Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, in 1980.

Sumac Ridge is notable for many historic firsts including the release of B.C.’s first traditional method sparkling wine and producing Canada’s first Meritage sourced from McWatters’ estate vineyard along the Black Sage Bench. In 1995, he founded See Ya Later Ranch Estate Winery, eventually selling both to Constellation Brands (formerly Vincor) in 2000 and “retiring” in 2008.

McWatters is now president and CEO of Encore Vineyards, the parent company behind Evolve Cellars, the McWatters Collection and now, TIME Winery.

The new location for TIME, in the renovated PenMar Theatre building on Martin Street, isn’t just a storefront to sell wines from.

“We are a full fledged winery, we will be crushing grapes there. The only thing we don’t do on site is grow the grapes,” said McWatters. “I am exactly three kilometres north of where I started my business 50 years ago.”

The vineyard remains an important part of the process.

“We’re able to select grape varieties from great sites throughout the region and we’re pretty excited about that,” said McWatters, explaining that having the crush pad and the vineyard in separate locations isn’t a new concept, it’s revisiting an old concept; wineries didn’t used to have their operation in the vineyard.

He’s also excited about contributing to the growing artisanal culture in downtown Penticton, joining Cannery Brewing, Bad Tattoo, Old Order Distillery, and the many restaurants.

“People started to talk about the area downtown being the entertainment district of Penticton. I think some of that is aspirational, I like to think we are making a major contribution to it.,” said McWatters. “We’ve also had some really positive feedback from the community: ‘We can’t wait till you get open, we are really looking forward to it.’

McWatters said that though they missed the bulk of the summer season, TIME will be open before long.

“Probably with a bit of a soft opening, making sure we have everything all set in all aspects of the business by early spring. We will have the winter to get the kinks out,” he said.

As he prepares for his 50th vintage, McWatters said it’s been a rewarding career, especially watching the growth.

“I am so proud of the successes,” said McWatters. “We have created an industry, based on the foundation laid by those of us that were here through that transition.”

That includes the diversity of people that have been attracted to the B.C. wine industry from all over the world, bringing and sharing their skills. There is phenomenal diversity in all aspects of our industry, he said, whether it be the training, the historical background of winemakers and growers, or just the number of wines that flourish in over 100 miles of changing climates through the Okanangan.

“We have about 70 commercially viable grape varieties and then we have all these personalities that want to put their fingerprint on that particular grape variety,” said McWatters. “I think we can never give up the mission to continue to raise the bar and continue to be diverse.”

TIME Winery is currently under construction in the downtown core of Penticton, but expected to be in full operation at the end of the month. Mark Brett/Western News

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