Harry McWatters, by all accounts the father of fine wine in British Columbia, passed away this week at his home, in his sleep, at the age of 73.
McWatters was a salesman for the Casabello Winery when, in 1979, he and a business partner founded Sumac Ridge winery on the site of a golf course overlooking Lake Okanagan. The success of its first release, a sparkling riesling called Stellar’s Jay, would transform British Columbia’s wine industry.
In the decades that followed, McWatters became a leader in the drive to increase the quality of British Columbia wines, which to that point had been made from hybrids and vitis riparia. He was a founder of the Wine Quality Alliance and, in 1990, was appointed director of the BC Wine Institute. In that position, he undertook a seminal challenge facing the industry: replanting its vineyards to higher-quality vitis vinifera.
This was prompted by passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated Canadian protection for domestic wineries. Faced with competition from California and Europe, BC wine growers faced enormous pressure (and cost) to replant their vineyards with vinifera.
In recent years, McWatters sold Sumac Ridge, bought vineyards on the Naramata Bench, and (just a year ago) opened a new facility in downtown Penticton called TIME Winery & Kitchen.
Funeral arrangements are pending.