Tuesday, July 12, 2011

He's back! Harry McWatters unveils his own label

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Photo: Harry McWatters

Sumac Ridge Estate Winery founder Harry McWatters has been such a force in British Columbia wines for at least 35 years that it is startling that he has never put his name on a brand of wine until now.

This week, at media lunches in the Okanagan and in Vancouver, he is formally unveiling the McWatters Collection 2007 Meritage.

“I never planned to put my name on it,” he says. “It was Christa-Lee and Darren that encouraged me to do it,” referring to his daughter and his son.

Christa-Lee, who also runs Local, the McWatters-owned restaurant in Summerland, argued that it would be prudent to establish the family brand. It is possible that this release could be the forerunner of a family-run winery.

Christa-Lee convinced her father that “if we are going to do something long-term, we might as well get something out there now.”

The 2007 Meritage has had a soft release already. It retails for $25 in the Summerland wine shop that Harry owns and it has been on Local’s wine list since spring. The initial release is only 500 cases.

No Meritage was made in 2008; but in 2009, 800 cases of Meritage and 200 cases of Chardonnay were produced. The Chardonnay is expected to be released this year but the 2009 Meritage is not likely to be released until next year.

The 2007 Meritage was made under Harry’s direction by Brad Cooper at the Township 7 Winery in Penticton. It is 60% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. The grapes are all from Harry’s vineyard on Black Sage Road. The wine spent 15 months in French oak barrels and another 15 months in bottle prior to release. It is a delicious 90-pointer that does Harry proud.

There are two explanations for Harry releasing a wine with his own name on the label (aside from the encouragement of his family).

First of all, he has been passionate about wine longer than most of us have been drinking wine. He started making wine at home when he was 16 (he was born in 1945). In 1968 he quit as a United Van Lines manager to work in sales for Casabello Wines in Penticton. He started Sumac Ridge in 1980 with Lloyd Schmidt, who was then the vineyard manager at Casabello.

When Vincor Canada bought Sumac Ridge in 2000, Harry remained in Vincor’s management group until 2008. He “retired” to set up The Vintage Consulting Group which now has winery and vineyard clients throughout British Columbia.

Secondly, Harry has the grapes in his superb vineyard on Black Sage Road. The vineyard was planted in 1993 and at the time was one of the largest plantings of Bordeaux reds (primarily) in Canada. Over the years, some of Sumac Ridge’s best wines were made from the Black Sage Vineyard grapes.

The vineyard was owned under a structure in which Harry and the winery were roughly equal partners. That has now been formalized in a way that leaves Harry with the front 60 acres and Vincor with the back 55 acres. Harry has been selling the grapes from his vineyard to various clients including Vincor. He made no Meritage in 2008 or in 2010 because his grape supply was already spoken for.

His obligation to Vincor ends this year, with Vincor buying 20% of the fruit. Harry is planning to make Meritage and Chardonnay this vintage. Where and how much has yet to be decided.

The vineyard – which needs to be renamed because Vincor owns the Black Sage Vineyard brand – grows enough varietals to support a good portfolio, should the McWatters Collection develop beyond Meritage.

“The largest variety I am growing is Merlot; then Cabernet Sauvignon,” Harry says. “I have only a small amount of Cabernet Franc. I am going to plant more. We did pull out our experimental vineyard there and planted just over an acre of Syrah. It is in its second leaf. In whites, I have Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, a little bit of Pinot Blanc.”

He is considering pulling out half of the Pinot Blanc to make room for Malbec and Petit Verdot. “The vineyard is so good for reds,” he believes.

“I don’t think I will sacrifice the Chardonnay; we get a lot of tropical fruit characteristics that make a big Chardonnay,” Harry says. “I like that style and I certainly have demand for it.”


At July 15, 2011 at 10:47 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, as always, John for your precise, professional and informative reporting.


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