I've been trying to remember meeting Harry McWatters for the first time. I honestly don't recall. It probably was around 2000, two years after my first visit to British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, a beautiful region that I didn't realize made great wines when I helped launch Wine Press Northwest magazine in 1998.
We had included B.C. wine country in the magazine out of default because Canada's western-most province is part of the Pacific Northwest, both geographically and culturally. Happily, the quality of the wines in B.C. fit in well with the rest of the Northwest, so our coverage of the region was a happy fit.
I recall the first time walking into Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in Summerland. In addition to the delicious wines, I remember eating at the Cellar Door Bistro, the first winery restaurant I'd encountered, an idea I thought was worth spreading. Since then, dozens of B.C. wineries have opened restaurants, and the idea spilled over the border into Washington, becoming a happy trend for wine lovers seeking the ultimate wine country experience.
Somewhere along the way, I met Harry, the co-founder and owner of Sumac Ridge. By 1995, he was also operating Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards above the town of Okanagan Falls, a beautiful site nestled in the hills above town that’s now known as See Ya Later Ranch.
I didn't see Harry on every visit over the border, but I saw him regularly, either at the winery or at various wine competitions up and down the West Coast. One year while judging in Temecula, deep in Southern California, we ended up touring around the region and sleeping on couches of friends in the Cucamonga Valley, a trip that, at times, felt like our own version of Sideways.
My friend Harry didn't wake up July 23, passing away in his sleep at the age of 74. As one who relished life and brought joy and energy to the Pacific Northwest wine industry, the loss of this lion is immeasurable.
What he brought to the industry in terms of energy and direction is measured in every person who visits wineries in B.C., every bottle of Okanagan Valley wine sold and every medal won at an international competition. It is safe to say that nearly every word written about B.C. wines could be traced back to Harry.
His powers of persuasion helped bring the British Columbia wine industry forward. His relentless commitment to quality, which was lacking in British Columbia prior to the expansion of vinifera plantings in the province, played a role in the creation of the Vintners Quality Alliance, a system created for consumers that’s similar to those found in Europe. Before Harry, it was widely believed vinifera wouldn’t survive B.C.’s winters, and French hybrids, which are still common, predominated.
Inspired by research conducted in the Okanagan Valley by German expert Helmut Becker, Harry planted warm-climate grapes near the U.S. border on the now-vaunted Black Sage Bench when everybody else thought it was crazy to try. He proved the Okanagan Valley was a red wine region when everyone else thought the focus on white varieties was obvious. Who plants Cabernet Sauvignon in Canada?
After visiting the Tri-Cities Wine Festival in the '80s, he decided to take back home the concept launched by then-wine distributor Coke Roth. It led to creation of the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival, which is now a 10-day event that includes hundreds of events and a wine competition. It draws thousands from across the country (and across the border) to the Okanagan during shoulder tourism season, filling hotels, restaurants and tasting rooms. Thousands of bottles of wine leave the valley because of Harry's insightfulness and vision. The Okanagan Wine Fest is now quarterly, meaning more visitors, more wine and more economic success for the valley. The wave of quality wine production has carried across Canada.
Not everyone liked Harry. As a journalist, I often heard grumblings about Harry's sway and power. I dismissed these occasional as professional jealousy. His reputation and success were built on keen vision and hard work. As an outsider, it was easy to see his impact on his community. He cared more about his neighbor's success than his own. He knew their success led to his success.
Harry's legacy will be measured in the continued success of the B.C. wine industry's growth, every visitor who crosses the border, every bottle of wine sold. The lesson we can all take from Harry's life is that hard work breeds success, and we have to remember to take time to live life fully and with joy.
Thank you, Harry. I will miss you.
This story was originally published September 30, 2019 2:40 PM.