Corks popped and wine flowed freely under a blue South Okanagan in late morning hours of Monday as some 200 invited guests marked the 30th anniversary of the founding of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery by Harry McWatters.
The event featured many of the touches that have earned the local industry accolades across the world: the natural beauty of the South Okanagan, pleasing music and food prepared with thought and finesse designed and the main attraction, the region’s growing stable of awardwinning wines that have come to define the provincial industry.
The figures are staggering. Eighty-four percent of provincial wine grapes are grown in the Okanagan, the largest wine-growing in the province. Estimates published in 2007 peg the total value of the provincial grape crop at $36.9 million dollars, a figure which does not include all ancillary activities.
It is no wonder then that the region has earned the nickname of Napa North, a reference to the sophisticated wine region of northern California.
While it may be difficult if not unfair to credit this success to a single individual, it might well be McWatters, who launched the region’s first estate winery, which he eventually sold to Vincor about a decade ago.
He has also helped to build the broader institutions that have ultimately contributed to the quality and marketability of B.C. wines. This infrastructure includes the B.C. Wine Institute, the Okanagan Wine Festival Society and the B.C Wine Information Centre. Speakers Monday included Summerland mayor Janice Perrino, who acknowledged these accomplishment in praising McWatters as a pioneer who has helped to build an industry synonymous with the South Okanagan.
“Harry, I would like to thank you for putting Summerland on the map,” said Perrino during her remarks to the audience, whose members also heard tributes from Penticton mayor Dan Ashton, recently-elected MP Dan Albas and Josie Tyabji, board chair of the B.C. Wine Institute. McWatters, who moved to Summerland in the late 1970s, received this praise with an air of humility that belies his list of awards, appointments and positions in the public and commercial life of British Columbia.
His biggest moment during Monday’s party came when he sabred off a specially occasioned bottle of sparkling wine. The cork flew into the air with a force reminiscent of the man who made it all possible first.