Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Harry McWatters in his 50th vintage

Photo: Harry McWatters toasts yet another vintage

Okanagan wine pioneer Harry McWatters this year marks his fiftieth vintage since he started his career with the long-gone Casabello winery in Penticton in 1968.

Since then, he went on to found Sumac Ridge Estate Winery and to buy Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards (now See Ya Later Ranch). Those wineries were acquired in 2000 by Vincor. Harry remained involved with Vincor and its successor until 2008.

On leaving there, he launched a new label, McWatters Collection, and then a new winery, Time Estate Winery. He started building a new winery on his Black Sage Road vineyard in 2015.

When that vineyard and project were acquired by Phantom Creek Estates (which will open its winery in a few years), Harry regrouped and bought the 12,000-square-foot former Pen-Mar four-theatre cinema in downtown Penticton as the new home for Time.

“I came here [to the theatre] in 1957,” Harry recalls. “I was 12 years old. I brought a date for a Saturday afternoon matinee.  It cost 25 cents for admission, soft drink and popcorn for both of us.”

The 2017 crush, Harry’s 50th vintage, is taking place in that movie house, which has been beautifully restored and equipped with the latest winemaking equipment.

As if this is not enough to keep him busy, he operates a winery north of Summerland called Evolve Cellars, in a facility formerly known as Bonitas before Harry leased the building.

The bottom line is that Harry goes into his 50th vintage with three well-made brands that have quickly gained a following: Time, Evolve and McWatters Collection.

And Time has just been named the official wine supplier for the Calgary Flames (and associated sports teams).  The first two wines being offered to Saddledome patrons are a 2016 Pinot Gris and a 2016 Cabernet Merlot. They will be co-branded as “It’s Go TIME Calgary Flames.” The wines will also be available at retail in Calgary.

A raconteur par excellence, Harry has tales from most of his vintages. When Sumac Ridge was launched in 1980, Harry and his partner, Lloyd Schmidt, made the wines that year at the Casabello winery. They did not finish modifying the former golf course club house in which they were installing the Sumac Ridge processing equipment until 1981.

“Probably the most memorable vintage, not necessarily for the positives, was 1981,” Harry remembers. “It was a really, really challenging vintage. We froze on the 28th of September. It was a very cool late summer. The next day, the leaves started to shrivel and fall. Picking was easy. But it is also the vintage when Lloyd Schmidt got his hand caught in the crusher. He and I were doing all of the crushing. He got his hand in the crusher and took the end off two fingers.”

Another memory: The last vintage in which Sumac Ridge made Okanagan Riesling was 1988. Harry never planted the grape, which is a foxy hybrid that once was ubiquitous in the Okanagan. After the free trade agreement was signed, almost all the Okanagan Riesling vines were pulled out because the variety was banned in the incoming VQA rules.

Harry was an early and major supporter of VQA, even though the ban of the variety caused significant short-term pain for Sumac Ridge’s adherence to that principle. “When we stopped making Okanagan Riesling, it was a 10,000-case brand,” Harry says. “We took a big hit, walking away from a 10,000-case brand.”

Another memory: In 1993, when the grape crop was large, Sumac took a contract to crush and process 100 tons of Pinot Blanc for Andrés Wines. The grower supplying the grapes over-cropped the vines and overwhelmed Sumac Ridge with 193 tons.

“The deal I had made was to produce 100 gallons of juice from every ton; everything left over, we kept,” Harry says. “I charged them $125 a ton to process it. By doing the 200 tons, although it almost killed our crush staff, it went a long way to help buying our new Bucher press. It was $80,000. At the time, $80,000 in the early 1990s, just after we had bought the vineyard, was a big amount.”

Another memory comes from notable 1995 vintage. That was the year when Sumac Ridge got its first harvest from the vineyard that Harry and Lloyd had planted in 1992 on Black Sage Road with 100 acres of Bordeaux red varieties. It was seen as a both a viticultural and financial gamble. “We stretched everything to the limit to buy 115 acres, and have the money to go ahead and plant it,” Harry recalls.

The wines made from that first harvest were outstanding. The Sumac Ridge 1995 Meritage was judged best red wine in Canada. In 1997, when the wine was released, Harry took samples to VinExpo, the big wine industry fair in Bordeaux.

A senior Bordeaux wine official complimented Harry on the Meritage and was completely dumfounded when he learned the wine was from three-year-old [or third leaf] vines. Harry recalls: “He said that is impossible because ‘you don’t get fruit until fourth or fifth leaf’. The only way I could exit the conversation was to admit I must have been mistaken about the year I planted the vines. It is, of course, not a mistake I would have made.”

The vintages of 1996 and 1999 are remembered as excellent for sparkling wine but, because they were very cool, difficult for table wines.

“1999 was a tough decision for us,” Harry says. “At Veraison, we were so far behind that we dropped 50% of our fruit on the ground. Because we dropped so much fruit, we had a very light crop. It was not financially very rewarding but the quality stood up better than the 1998 [a big, hot vintage]. We had some pretty good wines in 1999 in a vintage that did not have a great reputation. It is a judgment call you have to make. I don’t regret having made that decision but it had a huge impact financially.”

One could speculate that this left Sumac Ridge vulnerable to the successful takeover offer from Vincor.

Photo: Time's cellar in the former moving theatre

Harry has shown remarkable ability to rebound from setbacks and always remain at the centre of the action in the BC wine industry. Now, back at the scene of his first movie date, the Time Winery is just the latest sequel in a remarkable career.

Here are notes on the current releases.

Evolve Effervescence NV ($19.99). This Charmat method sparkling wine is made primarily with Chardonnay with about 15% Pinot Noir in the cuvée. The wine has vigorous bubbles, a bready hint on the nose and crisp, refreshing green apple flavours. 90.

Evolve Pinot Blanc 2016 ($15.99). This is a clean and focussed white from a grape that does not always get its due. There are aromas and flavours of apple and pear. The finish is crisp and fresh. 90.

Evolve Riesling 2016 ($16.99). This wine has just 10.8% alcohol because the fermentation was stopped to preserve some residual sugar. The sweetness is very well balanced with acidity. The wine has aromas and flavours of lime with a finish that has a zesty beginning and a lingering end. 90.

Time Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($22.99 for 250 cases). This barrel-fermented wine begins with aromas of lemon and a hint of oak and vanilla. On the palate, the wine is light, with clean, fresh citrus flavours. The finish is crisp and dry. 88.

Time Riesling 2016 ($22.99 for 220 cases). This wine, with just 9.5% alcohol, recalls elegant Rhine Rieslings. It begins with aromas of lemon and lemon zest, leading to intense lemon and lime on the palate, mingled with good minerality. The racy acidity is well balanced with almost imperceptible sweetness. 90.

Time Chardonnay 2014 ($25). This wine is still made with grapes from the Sundial Vineyard on Black Sage Road; it was subsequently sold. The wine begins with aromas of vanilla and marmalade leading to a rich palate with flavours of baked apple and butterscotch. The finish is long, with notes of oak mingled with ripe fruit. 90.

Time Viognier 2016 ($22.99 for 130 cases). This wine begins with aromas of ripe pineapple and apricot, leading to a palate loaded with stone fruit flavours, subtly framed with delicate oak. 91.

Time Cabernet Franc 2014 ($19.99). A classic example of the variety’s appealing brambleberry aromas and flavours – think of a mix of black cherry and blackberry. The long ripe tannins give this wine a lush and generous structure. 91.

Time Merlot 2015 ($N/A). The youthful firmness of this wine calls for decanting, which allows the blueberry and black currant aromas and flavours to open. The concentrated texture becomes juicy. 90.

McWatters Collection Chardonnay 2014 ($30 for 520 cases). This wine won a gold medal earlier this year at the Chardonnay du Monde competition in France. It begins with an intense aroma of marmalade, baked apple and vanilla, leading to flavours of baked apple and citrus, with a light note of butterscotch. This opulent wine has the perfect balance of almost tropical fruit flavours and oak.  92.

McWatters Collection Chardonnay 2015 ($N/A). Recently bottled, this is developing into a rich and buttery Chardonnay with aromas and flavours of citrus. 91.

Evolve Cabernet Merlot 2016 ($19.99). This is an easy-drinking blend, soft and juicy with aromas and flavours of cassis and blueberry. 88.

Evolve Shiraz 2016 ($19.99). The winemaker has done a good job emulating the style of Australian Shiraz. The wine is generous on the palate, with aromas and flavours of black cherries, figs and licorice. 88.

Evolve Elevate Carménère 2014 ($30). This bold, assertive red begins with dark fruit aromas accented by cracked black pepper. The palate delivers flavours of plum, fig, black currant with a note of pepper on the finish. 91.


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