In this heart-felt tribute to the man many credit with giving birth to the BC wine industry, Leeann Froese reflects on the remarkable life of Harry McWatters.
Froese was Harry McWatters’ publicist beginning in 1999 (with a break from 2010-2014).
Note: Also in this report, four 100-point wines from TIME winery reviewed.
By Leeann Froese
It is my privilege to be discussing Harry McWatters’ amazing life. He has left an unbelievable legacy. We are all the richer from his many contributions, and the extensive and profound impact he has had on his province, community, and industry.
To say that Harry McWatters is a legend in the Canadian wine industry would be an understatement. Harry, who celebrated his 51th vintage in 2018, is widely considered to be the foundation of the BC wine industry, the ‘grandfather’ of BC wine, a tireless industry leader in moving quality wine growing and winemaking forward, a marketing visionary, and a passionate advocate for BC wine.
He was kind, humble and generous, personifying hospitality. He loved his family, friends, and a good joke; and he inspired so many throughout his life.
I have so many memories accumulated since I first met Harry in 1997 — and many life lessons he imparted including “it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission,” and that every occasion should start with sparkling wine, while you are deciding what wine you want to open with your meal.
He loved a good joke. In the early 2000s he was the king of the email forward. How he found time to fart around and send jokes out I will never know. As I was in the midst of my workday a cheesy email would roll on and I’d have to work through the string of code and forwards embedded in the email to get to the punchline. He also loved to pull pranks on others and poke fun.
And the energy. He just didn’t stop, and now with his passing I confirm that he had only two speeds: on, and off.
He loved to host parties and dance, and swim and fish and snowmobile. He exemplified hospitality with his hosting and welcome to thousands of people over his life. Everyone was welcome at his table. Anyone who was fortunate enough to talk wine (or anything else) with Harry knows he was generous with his time and his knowledge. He loved nothing more than to share a laugh and a story with anyone who he met.
As his publicist, I love that he would meet with anyone I asked him to, and he would make time for anyone, no matter their station in life.
His communication style was on the phone — so if anyone needed anything, he was just a phone call away. And it did not matter what time of day or what time zone he was in; he’d call you back if you needed him.
I appreciate that he trusted me and my counsel, and was up for all of my PR suggestions — including the time I asked him if he would be open to a tasting for bloggers in the former morgue! Unconventional, like Harry.
Harry was a PR person’s dream: charismatic, great on camera, and he was excellent at nailing his messages in the time he was given.
As a lover of bubble, he has sabred open sparking wine with everything imaginable. A sword, butter knife, wine glass, shoe, ice skate and more. The biggest moment of sabring I witnessed was when we were at the party for Alexandre Bilodeau, the Canadian freestyle skier who captured the first Canadian Gold Medal during the 2010 Olympic games. Harry opened a bottle of the commemorative wine Tribute with a ski, naturally, so we could all toast Alex.
Going way back, my first ever press conference was in 1999 when Harry was announcing the sale of Sumac Ridge — he was deeply concerned that after all of his hard work advocating for VQA and British Columbia (never just BC) that people would have a poor opinion of him. But how could they?
He was congratulated, and on his wine career went.
Below, a look back at that amazing career.
BC Wine Icon and Pioneer
Harry’s first position in the BC wine industry began in 1968. From then to today, his long list of accomplishments include founding the British Columbia Wine Institute (BCWI), Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) Canada, and the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society, launching pioneering winery Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, releasing Canada’s first traditional-method sparkling wine, launching Canada’s first Meritage (Bordeaux-style red wine blend), and founding the BC Hospitality Foundation.
He was a member of the Order of British Columbia, inductee to the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame, two-time Jubilee Medal winner from her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
These, among many other accomplishments, have earned Harry – passionate, intelligent, outspoken and provocative — a major place in Canadian wine history.
I have so many personal memories that I need time to put down, so later I will make a post that captures my memories as well as some of Harry’s best pranks and stories.
Please find more detailed information about Harry’s legacy below.
More Than 50 Years in BC Wine
Harry got his start in the wine business in BC at Casabello Wines in 1968, taking the helm of their sales department. A decade later, he took the role of Director of Marketing and moved to the Okanagan, already planning to subvert wine and winery regulations which had been described as “suffocating,” according to noted BC wine expert and historian John Schreiner.
Among his long list of accomplishments, one of his early milestones was in the creation of the newly formed British Columbia Wine Institute (BCWI) in 1990. He served as founding chair until 1995 and remained on the board until 2007. The BCWI represents member winery operators and grape growers, and exists to market the wine and wine regions of BC and acts as an advocate to the government on behalf of a growing industry that contributes more than $2 billion in provincial economic growth annually.
The BCWI oversaw the creation of VQA Canada in 1990, a trade association that delineated and enforced the development of national wine standards for Canadian wines and wineries. Harry also served as its founding chair. Since that time, the number of wineries in British Columbia has grown from 17 to 281, while BC VQA wine is the second-best selling category in BC, with approximately 19 per cent (by volume) of the market, ahead of all wine-importing countries.
Of Harry’s time as chair of these two ground-breaking organizations, Schreiner said that Harry “had the ability to make unreasonable regulations sensible, or to wiggle around pointless rules. In doing so, he was always breaking ground that made the (industry) easier for his peers.”
Such legislative victories included increasing, then doubling the maximum production of estate wineries to make them financially viable, and softening the rules around minimum acreage for estate wineries. He also skirted the rules that eventually allowed wineries to have restaurant licenses and sell food alongside glasses of wine. These, among many other accomplishments, have earned Harry more than his fair share of supporters and detractors along the way.
Harry may be best known to consumers as the founder of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery (1982), now one of the most recognized wine brands in BC. He sold the winery to Vincor (which became owned by Constellation and is now Arterra Wines) in 2000, ultimately retiring as Vice President of the company on April 30, 2008. His retirement was extremely short-lived, and the very next day he launched Vintage Consulting Group Inc. and the Okanagan Wine Academy, which ultimately led to the formation of not one, but three different labels.
Throughout his examined endeavours, the breadth and magnitude of his impact will continue to have an effect on British Columbia and ultimately Canada for decades to come.
Now, under the ENCORE Vineyards umbrella, is TIME Winery, Evolve Cellars, and McWatters Collection.
Today, these three winery labels are popular on the BC wine scene, and have been capturing critical acclaim and many awards.
2017 marked Harry’s 50th vintage in BC, and then 2018 marked the opening of the TIME Winery facility in downtown Penticton, the South Okanagan’s first downtown winery.
In July 2019, TIME Winery celebrated its first anniversary and Harry sabered open the first sparkling wine from TIME Winery.
It was just recently that Harry sabred open a bottle of the brand new TIME Winery Brut, while he was surrounded by family, friends and community.
We had no inkling that for many of us that would be our last shared glass, but for all of us, I am sure we can all deal with his departure a little easier seeing him there with Darrien, Christa-Lee, and his love Lisa. He was looking very well and was so happy.
I’d like to earnestly thank everyone who took the time to read this and for considering the remarkable life of the incomparable Harry McWatters.
His impressive life exemplifies what it means to be a father, leader, innovator, and a Canadian. I am blessed to have been part of his inner circle, and I miss him so much already.
On July 23, 2019, at age 74, Harry McWatters passed away. He died peacefully in his sleep.
Harry is survived by his soul mate and life partner Lisa Lalonde; his first wife, Cathie McWatters, who he was with him for more than 40 years, and their two children, Christa-Lee and Darrien McWatters; and Darrien’s children Brendan and Connor McWatters.
A celebration of Harry’s life will be held on Friday, Aug. 9 at the Penticton Lakeside Resort, at 1:30 p.m. In Harry’s honour, donations may be made to the BC Hospitality Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada.
I, my husband Andrew, and our team at Town Hall Brands send our condolences and greatest sympathies to the entire family, the staff at the wineries, and to all of Harry’s friends, colleagues, and supporters.
Owner of Townhall Brands
TIME Winery reviews
These are the last wines sent to Wines In Niagara under the careful guidance of Harry McWatters. I tasted them prior to hearing the shocking and sad news that he had passed away in his sleep. I have had a long and special relationship with Harry McWatters since first meeting him in the Okanagan Valley in 1990 or so when I first began writing wine reviews for the Calgary Sun. His Sumac Ridge wines were so special; they helped change my mind completely about Canadian wines as I began my quest to learn more and taste more wines from our own country. Eventually, my focus would become VQA wines from Canada.
There were many visits to the Okanagan Valley and the trips intensified when McWatters became part of Vincor and the company had the cash to bring wine writers to the Valley or Ontario for lavish celebrations in honour of this or that milestone.
Once I moved to Ontario, my encounters with McWatters did not stop, in fact, the opposite happened. He kept in touch, always via telephone, just to chat or comment on a recent post on the website, usually about the industry. He was always the first to pick up the phone when someone he admired had passed away. He always had kind words he wanted to share and special memories he wanted included in anything being written.
He also made sure his wines were always in front of critics such as myself as he was proud of each and every bottle he ever produced.
I offer these final four reviews under McWatters’ watch, and in honour of such a great man, I am giving each of them 100 points — I want him to have a great story to tell to a couple of his pioneering pals in heaven, Karl Kaiser and Lloyd Schmidt.
These are for you, Harry McWatters.
TIME Brut 2018 ($35, 100 points) — The base wines were fermented in neutral French oak barrels, stainless steel barrels and stainless steel tanks. It has a lovely nose of lemon, biscuit, toasty notes, cream and pear. It shows a vigorous mousse in the glass with mouth-filling bubble to go with creamy pear and apple, citrus, lemon zest and a fresh, crisp finish
TIME White Meritage 2018 ($25, 100 points) — This traditional blend of 73% Sauvignon Blanc and 27% Semillon combines to offer an elegant nose of pear, gooseberries, spice, apricot and melon. It offers herbs, gooseberries, grassy/hay notes and kiwi on the palate with underlying pear and spice on the vibrant finish. Delicious!
TIME Rosé 2018 ($25, 100 points) — This 100% Syrah-based rosé shows a red velvet and vibrant colour in the glass in the glass with an array of strawberries, cherries, pomegranate, raspberry pie and rhubarb tart. It’s dry and succulent on the palate with a range of red fruits, earthy/bramble undertones and a vibrant finish.
TIME Riesling 2018 ($23, 100 points) — A nose of juicy lime, grapefruit, mineral and green apple notes. There’s a touch of honey on the palate and rich layers of lime, apple, grapefruit and lemon zest on a vibrant finish.
May you rest in peace, Harry.