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McWatters celebrates fifty years of winemaking

The grandfather of the B.C.’s wine industry looks back on a 50-year career
Dustin Godfrey/Black Press Harry McWatters (right) watches while his son Darren sips some wine and daughter Christa-Lee pours christens some of the first grapes for his 50th vintage at the TIME Winery Penticton’ inaugural crush.

Harry McWatters’ interest in wine and winemaking predates building Sumac Ridge, the first estate winery in B.C., in 1980, but there is no doubt it was there he began to make a significant impact on the province’s nascent wine industry.

This week the veteran winemaker celebrated a major milestone, crushing the grapes for his 50th vintage, and doing so at his newest winery, TIME, which is opening soon in Downtown Penticton.

Wine has always been a part of McWatters’ life, growing up in a household where they drank wine regularly.

“For as long as I can remember, on Sundays I would always get a couple of ounces of wine with dinner,” said McWatters. The tradition of wine at meals continued, at least until the young McWatters moved out on his own.

“I left home when I was 16, and as a result didn’t have access to wine. So I started making wine when I was 16 years old,” he said. “They were probably better in my memory than they were in reality.”

But it was a Sumac Ridge that McWatters notched up a number of industry firsts: B.C.’s first traditional method sparkling wine, the first varietal Chardonnay, releasing Canada’s first Meritage (a red or white wine blended from Bordeaux varietals).

Looking back half a century, McWatters said he could never have predicted the growth of the B.C. wine into the $3 billion industry it is today.

“When I first started, selling Okanagan wine was a challenge,” said McWatters. In the sixties, he explained, the wine consumer was still being educated.

“I often joked there were two kinds of consumers. Those that took it out of the brown paper bag, and those that didn’t,” said McWatters, adding that contrary to popular belief, the wines of that time weren’t all bad.

“The best wines we made in the 60s and 70s were our toughest sell. They were dry and they did show a lot of promise,” he said. “There were some good wines and there were wines that showed promise.”

It was changes brought on by the 1988 Free Trade Agreement that encouraged local wineries to band together and start raising the bar on both the quality and image of B.C. wines.

Building TIME Winery is just the latest step in McWatters’ ongoing quest to develop the profile of B.C. wines. Moving into an urban location, he said, is a return to an old concept, when wineries had the crush pad and operation separate from the vineyard.

TIME, in the renovated PenMar Theatre building on Martin Street, isn’t just a storefront to sell wines from.

“We are a full fledged winery, we will be crushing grapes there. The only thing we don’t do on site is grow the grapes,” said McWatters, noting it’s also a return to his early days in the industry. “I am exactly three kilometres north of where I started my business 50 years ago.”

In planning for 18 months, McWatters’ daughter Christa-Lee told a small crowd it felt good to finally flick the switch on some of the equipment in the winery on Monday.

“We wanted to do something that was different, so we had some people say, what about the Pen-Mar Theatre,” she said. “Well, first of all, no, that’s not going to work, second of all, it’s not for sale. And then we had a little look at it, and it is and it was.”