McWatters urges winery excellence

While the local wine industry has many reasons to toast its success, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels, says one of its most prominent pioneers.

  • Aug. 3, 2011 11:00 a.m.

While the local wine industry has many reasons to toast its success, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels, says one of its most prominent pioneers.

Harry McWatters, founder of Summerland’s Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, B.C.’s first estate winery, says the local winery will only remain successful if it continues to challenge itself in reconciling quality with affordability in the face of growing competition, particularly from wine producing regions that out-compete the provincial wine industry on volume.

“The competition does not live down the road,” he said. “It lives in another country, but it is as close as your nearest liquor store.”

McWatters, one of the most knowledgeable wine experts in North America, issued this appeal on the occasion of launching his own estate wine. The McWatters Collection comes from one of the first vinifera vineyards planted in 1993 at the Black Sage Vineyard, now known as the Sundial Vineyard. The first release of the McWatters Collection is a 2007 Meritage, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc releases planned in the future.

“I still have a lot of firsts to achieve and crafting our own estate wine from one of the first vinifera vineyards planted on the Black Sage Road has been a dream of mine since I first acquired the property in 1992,” said McWatters in a release announcing the launch. And this step, which he has taken at the urging of his daughter Christa-Lee Bond-McWatters and her husband Cameron Bond, might only be a prelude to something larger.

“We have not ruled out the establishment of a winery down there,” he said.

McWatters now finds himself on this path after a brief retirement from his day-to-day activities as president of Sumac Ridge Estate on April 30, 2008. This retirement was brief indeed as it ended on May 1, 2008 when McWatters opened his current consulting business Vintage Consulting, an activity which he says has taken up more time than anticipated  in light of the economic downturn that began to unfold in the fall of 2008.

While the industry is still recovering from the fallout of that crisis, it can look back on an impressive evolution in garnering international attention and awards. McWatters expects this growth to continue in pointing to B.C’s growing population and changing consumption patterns.

Consumption per capita of wine is growing as more adults are starting to drink wine at a younger age, he said. B.C. wines, he noted, are known for their ability to complement food.

Much of this credit goes to the wine industry in the Okanagan, which would not be what it is today, had not been for the input of McWatters who helped build many of the institutions that have increased the quality and marketability of its products.

Industry insiders recently acknowledged McWatters’ influence during the celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery.

But as much as McWatters appreciated the occasion, he looks forward to the future.

And in that scenario, he sees the local wine industry play an important role in preserving local agriculture and promoting regional economic development.

This said, the region cannot afford to lose track of developments elsewhere.

“That is the biggest thing we have to deal with — complacency,” he said.