Harry McWatters, Godfather of B.C. wine, dies at 74

Founder of Sumac Ridge was also founding chair of the B.C. Wine Institute

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Harry McWatters joked to BIV in 2017 that he worked half days: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. | Rob Kruyt

Harry McWatters, a towering figure during the past 50 years helping the B.C. wine industry grow in size and respect, has died at age 74.

“Harry passed away peacefully in the comfort of his Summerland home during his sleep on July 23,” his Time Winery & Kitchen wrote on its Facebook page. Time is part of Encore Vineyards Ltd., where McWatters was CEO.

“Harry’s sudden passing comes as a surprise to all as he was only last week celebrating the success and anniversary of our downtown Penticton winery,” the post said.

Time's Facebook page quickly filled with condolences and memories with some people describing McWatters as the “Godfather” of B.C. wine.

Fellow longtime supporter of the B.C. wine industry and wine author John Schreiner told Business in Vancouver on July 24 that the term was appropriate.

“It’s devastating,” Schreiner said. “I think he was very important. He was the first one to have a major planting of Bordeaux reds on Black Sage Road. He committed to 100 acres and everybody told him he was nuts because it was the wisdom in 1992 that you couldn’t grow those things. Now the entire south Okanagan is full of Bordeaux reds.”

Schreiner praised McWatters for in the early 1980s establishing a major wine competition in the Okanagan, where there were gold medals for excellence. “It enabled consumers to get some exposure to the better wines that were being made then,” Schreiner said.

Those wanting to remember McWatters are invited to take part in a Twitter chat at 8 p.m. on July 24 and to use the hashtag #BCwinechat.

McWatters’ passion for the industry was also evident in 1990, when he helped create and was the founding chair of the British Columbia Wine Institute (BCWI). He was also a passionate supporter of the BCWI's VQA designation for B.C. wines that met specific standards.

That organization’s first executive director, Christine Coletta, told BIV in 2017 that she remembered regular chats with McWatters at 5 a.m., and that he was always accessible and empowering.

“Not once did he say ‘I’m too busy for you,’ or ‘I don’t have time for this,’” she said.

“He would sit down with me, he would take the time and his typical response to me was, ‘What do you think you should do here?’ I would tell him and he would say, go ahead and do it. His famous line to me was ‘85% of the time you will be right, and the other 15%, you’ll be forgiven for.’” 

McWatters kept the fire in his belly until the end, although he told BIV in 2017 that he planned to slow down a little and take more time off to share with his partner, Lisa Lalonde.

His two adult offspring, Christa-Lee McWatters Bond and Darren McWatters, both worked at the family business. They agreed among themselves that McWatters Bond will assume the role of CEO whenever their father leaves the business, McWatters said in 2017.

Born in Toronto, McWatters moved to North Vancouver when he was 10. He graduated from the now-closed Delbrook Senior Secondary School, took a job at Canada Safeway and then moved up to a sales manager position at United Van Lines.

His natural aptitude for sales made him a success.

He was enticed by Casabello Wines to start as a sales manager in 1968. McWatters jumped at the chance to join Casabello because wine had become his passion, he told BIV in 2017.

McWatters first experimented with making wine when he was 16 years old, under the tutelage of some older Italian friends. His interest in the product grew and he developed an appreciation for wine that few British Columbians shared. At the time, most people in the province drank little wine and what they did imbibe was usually a sweet red elixir.

Casabello was one of the first wineries to plant traditional viniferous wine grapes, rather than North American hybrid grapes, in the Okanagan Valley, McWatters said in 2017.

The new grapes produced drier wines with more refined flavours, but consumers of the day were not ready – the best wines that Casabello made in the 1960s were the most difficult wines to sell, McWatters remembered.

“One thing that was true then, true now, and true in all of my 50 vintages, and I’m sure for the next 50 vintages, is that the industry has to be consumer driven,” McWatters said. “The industry can change consumer preferences, but that’s a slow process.”

He took the lesson that the consumer is always right, as well as others gleaned at Casabello, when he embarked on his first foray as an entrepreneur. In 1979, he bought the Sumac Ridge Golf Course and planted grapevines in some of its fairways.

He collected revenue from the shortened nine-hole course while laying the seeds for his future Sumac Ridge Estate Winery. He officially launched the winery in 1981 by selling a 1980 vintage made on Casabello’s premises.

Many wine awards followed.

Sumac ownership would comprise McWatters and partner Bob Wareham, each with 30% stakes, with the remaining 40% held by various private investors. In 2000, that ownership group sold Sumac Ridge to Vincor International Inc. for an undisclosed amount.

McWatters stayed at Vincor as a vice-president until 2008, when the company, then owned by Constellation Brands, threw him a retirement party. In reality, McWatters had no plans to retire.

A week after his so-called retirement, he launched Vintage Consulting Group and was soon working on a project for Constellation.

“I don’t think of what I do as work,” he said in 2017.

“It’s my profession. It’s what I do. People don’t have to be in the wine business long to realize that if you’re not living it, it becomes work.”

To read BIV's profile of Harry McWatters from 2017, click here.