The Vancouver International Wine Festival is more than a series of wine tastings, lunches and dinners.
It’s also a time to honour an individual who has made a significant contribution to BC wine.
This year, the Spirited Industry Professional Award was presented to Harry McWatters, a 49-year veteran and wine industry icon, often compared to Robert Mondavi, who put California on the world wine map.
McWatters founded Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, B.C.’s first estate winery in 1980, and See Ya Later Ranch Estate winery in 1995 and served as Vice-President of Vincor Canada.
At the festival, I asked McWatters what keeps him going for half a century making and promoting wine.
“There’s always something new in my life, as you know, Eric,” he said.
“I’m going into my 50th vintage and I created a wine called 50th Vintage to celebrate that.
“I feel blessed that I’ve been able to live the wine industry and watch it grow and flourish over the past 50 vintages.”
As expected, McWatters’ dreams are bigger than just making a new wine.
“We’re building a new winery in Penticton and we’re going to open it this spring.
“We bought a theatre complex and it was built in the mid 50s.
“And we are doing an expansion to it; the front of the house will be a whole wine and food experience.”
Part of the restored Pen-Mar Theatre will be home to a brand new winery production facility, tasting bar and retail shop, which will feature several special wines only available on the premises.
But there’s much more to McWatters’ latest project.
“We’re developing a whole commercial kitchen. We’re not calling it a restaurant but we do have a patio area outside.
“We’ll serve shared plates so people can sit and enjoy a flight of wines and share some food,” McWatters proudly explained.
“The smallest of the restored theatres will showcase local performing arts, as a way of giving back to the community.
“It will also be a good opportunity for Okanagan winemakers to share their expertise and their wines with colleagues in the industry and the general public.
“The example I use is, say we invite six to eight winemakers from the Okanagan that do a really good job of Riesling.
“And we do a seminar from nine to noon on a Saturday morning and let them come and talk about their philosophy and why they make their wine the way they do and what sets it apart from others and so on, and then do a tasting.
“People then would obviously pay to come and try those multiple products.”
“It’s going to be exciting.”
Since “retiring” in 2008, he has launched TIME Estate Winery, the McWatters Collection and co-developed ENCORE Vineyards Ltd.
McWatters is also the founding chair of the BC Wine Institute, VQA Canada and the BC Wine Information Society.
In 2003, he received the prestigious Order of British Columbia for his services to the B.C. wine industry.
Eric Hanson is a retired teacher and wine expert and retired Richmond teacher. He can be reached by email at Ehanson0705@gmail.com.