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UPDATED: Tributes pour in for ‘Godfather’ of B.C. wine industry, Harry McWatters: “This is the Harry I knew.”

By Rick VanSickle

With the sudden death of the man fondly referred to as  the “Godfather” of the B.C. wine industry, tributes for Harry McWatters are pouring in from around the world.

McWatters’ family posted details on the TIME Winery Facebook Tuesday:

“It is with shock that we share our deep sadness and announce the passing of ENCORE Vineyards president & chief executive officer Harry McWatters.

“Harry passed away peacefully in the comfort of his Summerland home during his sleep on July 23, 2019.

“Currently we ask that you please respect the privacy of Harry’s family as they experience the shock and magnitude of this loss.

“Harry’s sudden passing comes as a surprise to all as he was only last week celebrating the success and anniversary of our sister winery, TIME Winery & Kitchen.

“Memorial details will be shared when they become available.”

Memories and tributes have been flooding social media platforms and we are sharing some special thoughts here.

Another pioneer of the B.C. wine industry and an integral part of viticulture in the Canadian wine industry, Lloyd Schmidt, died in February. On April 5, 1979, McWatters and Schmidt purchased the Sumac Ridge Golf Course with plans to transform the fairway greens and clubhouse to vineyards and a winery. By 1981, Sumac Ridge produced its first vinifera wines — Gewürztraminer and Chenin Blanc.

The partnership at Sumac did not last, and after five years the two parted ways. The Schmidt family sold their interest to Bud Richmond and then the Wareham family acquired Richmond’s interest (Sumac Ridge was eventually sold to Vincor). Schmidt  turned to his passion of viticulture, importing vines from around the world.

McWatters met with Schmidt in Niagara last year to share stories about their friendship.

Even though the two parted ways with Sumac Ridge and after Schmidt moved to Niagara “our friendship and respect for each other lasted and continued to grow,” said McWatters after the death of Schmidt. “He was a special man, a dear friend.”

McWatters said at the time that Schmidt left behind a “family legacy, a family that inherited his passion. He fought for the grower and lifted the bar.”

One of Lloyd Schmidt’s sons, Brian, now vice-president and winemaker at Vineland Estates in Niagara, has these touching memories of McWatters to share.

This is the Harry I knew

(Left to right), Lloyd Schmidt, Allan Schmidt and Harry McWatters.

“As thoughts and comments about Harry (McWatters) have been shared there is a common theme, Harry was passionate, energetic, driven, a gregarious man on a mission and a visionary. Some who knew him more closely would say he was also opinionated, stubborn and critical … this is not a criticism.

“Harry was a devoted father and a mentor to many, but I want share a short story about this magnanimous, devoted friend that our family knew.

“In the period following the breakup of Sumac Ridge (1986) I spent several years doing everything I could to avoid the wine Industry. I was 19 and working on Vancouver Island as a commercial scuba diver. One afternoon I received a phone call from Harry. I hadn’t spoke to him since our families parted.

“He said: ‘I am in Campbell River on sales calls, can I buy you dinner?’ I thought it was going to be awkward, but I agreed to meet him.

“During our dinner he asked about what I was up to. My mom and dad were living in Germany and he shared his thoughts about many things. But what struck me — and what STUCK with me — was this question: ‘I want to know how you are?’

“I would come to learn that THIS was Harry McWatters, the Harry I had not known before, but would come to admire and love.

Harry McWatters and Lloyd Schmidt

“Harry would go out of his way to remain connected to those he cared about.

“Eventually I found a path back into the wine industry.

“Harry stayed in touch with our family through my father. The former business partners would chat regularly. They would celebrate the successes of the industry and of their children.

“I would get a phone message from Harry saying: ‘Hey Brian, Harry here. I heard you did (full in the blank). That is great, keep up the good work. Your dad is proud of you.’

“This was the Harry I knew.

“In recent months since my father passed away, we connected more often. Just last week we shared a wonderful exchange on FB messenger. I was thanking him for checking in on my mom via phone or FB, asking ‘how are you Noreen, I was just thinking about you and thought I would call.’ THIS was Harry.

“I will miss his messages.

“Get some rest Harry; you certainly didn’t rest while you were with us.”

Town Hall sends condolences

“He has left an unbelievable legacy. We are all the richer his many contributions, and the extensive and profound impact he has had on his province, community, and industry,” said Leeann Froese, owner Town Hall Brands and publicist for McWatters.”

Froese said she’s known McWatters both personally and professionally for over 20 years. She said that he was passionate not only about his businesses and the wine industry, but also about giving back to the greater community.

“It’s been my honour to work with Harry for the past 20-plus years. I’ve learned many things from him and he’s inspired many people,” said Froese. “Many of the people in the B.C. and Canadian wine industry owe him a debt of gratitude for the path that he’s laid.”

A note from the
Okanagan Wine Festivals Society

Harry McWatters received an honourary doctor of laws degree from Okanagan University College and, in 2003, received the prestigious Order of British Columbia for his service to the B.C. wine industry.

“As the founder of the Wine Festivals Society, Harry had a tremendous vision. His passion for B.C. wines and pride in watching the industry grow was unmatched. Today we have lost an industry giant and true champion. His family is part of our family and we know the industry will feel this loss deeply. To Harry, we shall all raise a glass in gratitude and respect,” said Angela Brown, board chair of the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society.

Other tributes and comments

To get a sampling of the love shared by so many for Harry McWatters, read over 300 comments on the TIME Facebook page here 

About Harry McWatters

Harry McWatters is a 50-year veteran of the thriving British Columbia wine industry. In 1980 he founded Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, the first estate winery in the province; subsequently, he founded See Ya Later Ranch Estate winery in 1995. When McWatters sold both operations to Vincor Canada in 2000, he remained President of Sumac Ridge and See Ya Later Ranch and was a Vice President of Vincor Canada until he “retired” in 2008 and established the Vintage Consulting Group. Since then, McWatters launched TIME Estate Winery and the McWatters Collection. He co-developed the ENCORE Vineyards Ltd. business model.

Instrumental in founding VQA Canada and serving as its first chairman, McWatters is also the founding chair of the B.C. Wine Information Society, the B.C. Hospitality Foundation, and numerous festivals and events focused on the B.C. wine industry. McWatters received an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Okanagan

University College and in 2003 received the prestigious Order of British Columbia for his services to the B.C. wine industry.