Saturday, August 10, 2019

Harry McWatters Remembered

Photo: Harry McWatters

For the celebration of the life of Harry McWatters on August 9, I was asked for some remarks on his incredible career in wine. This is a copy of what I said. It was an honour to do this.

Harry McWatters should be remembered as a man who was always looking beyond the horizon.

He joined Casabello Wines in 1968 when there were just five or six wineries in British Columbia – and one of those, the original Mission Hill – was sliding into bankruptcy. It was hardly an auspicious time to start a career in wine. But Harry had a vision and he made it happen, dramatically. Someone who had crossed swords with him once said to me that Harry wanted to squash the small wineries. If that was indeed so, it was one of his few failures. Today, there are about 350 wineries in British Columbia and many others under development.

There were numerous ways in which Harry helped make that happen.

The wine industry began to emerge when government allowed estate wineries in 1978. I suspect that Harry had a hand in structuring the estate winery policy because he always had good political connections. You get very little done in the wine industry if the politicians are not on side. Harry understood that and provided critical political leadership to the industry.

Sumac Ridge was one of the earliest estate wineries. The winery was the platform for many of Harry’s innovations in the industry, one of which was Steller’s Jay, the first British Columbia sparkling wine made in much the same way that Champagne is made. Harry loved sparkling wine more than any other wine. He said that was what he drank while deciding what wine to have with dinner. Always a great showman, Harry learned how to saber a bottle of bubbly and did it often. It certainly helped popularize sparkling wine. Today, it is a rare winery that does not make bubble.

Harry was an early proponent of vinifera grapes. Sumac Ridge had to use hybrid grapes for its first wines because very little other fruit was available. But Sumac Ridge never planted a single hybrid. And in 1993, after most of the hybrids were pulled out, Sumac Ridge planted about 100 acres of vinifera, mostly Bordeaux reds, on Black Sage Road. At the time, it was the largest single block of Bordeaux reds in British Columbia and it proved to be a huge success. This was an example of Harry seeing over the horizon.

Another example: Harry was a founding chair of the British Columbia Wine Institute in 1990. This was not the first wine industry association in British Columbia. At least two previous associations had fallen apart. If the third had also collapsed, I am not sure we would have much of a wine industry. The Wine Institute succeeded because Harry recruited top-flight staff.

Harry also was the founding proponent for the VQA program. It made Harry a controversial figure in the industry. A number of producers refused to join VQA, either because they refused to pay the fees or, as one producer said to me, the VQA standards were too low. I agreed with him, but that was not the point. Before VQA there were no British Columbia wine standards of consequence that consumers could trust. The credibility that British Columbia wines have today started with VQA.

VQA was just one of the actions Harry did t0 promote British Columbia wines. In the early 1980s, he helped launch the annual fall wine festival. You might recall that it was originally named Septober before it became the Okanagan Wine Festival. The festival achieved two things. It attracted consumers to visit the wineries. And the medals award in competition raised the profile and the sales of the wines.

Harry seldom missed a chance to raise the profile of British Columbia as a winegrowing region. For example, he was instrumental in getting the Society of Wine Educators annual conference to come to Vancouver in 1986 for the first time.

He was a partner in getting private wine store licenses that allowed several early estate wineries get their wines to market well before there were VQA stores. His partners were Gray Monk, Gehringer Brothers and Divino. The relationship that Harry had with Joe Busnardo, Divino’s founder, tells me that Harry could get along with anyone. Joe could be ornery. Harry once told me that “if you were swimming down the river, you know Joe would be swimming up. And if the river changed directions, so would Joe.” Yet Harry respected Joe because, like Sumac Ridge, Divino planted only vinifera grapes.

Harry was looking over the horizon when he talked the Meritage Association in California into letting not just Sumac Ridge but other Canadian wineries to use the Meritage term. It meant we stopped called our Bordeaux blends Medoc or Graves. Long before that practice became illegal, Harry recognized that Canadian wine would never be taken seriously if the wineries continued to use European place names.

Harry was looking over the horizon when he helped others get started. For example, he helped Gwen and Corey Coleman gain experience by working in his wineries before they opened Township 7 in 2004. At the time, Corey said to me: “I don’t know who else you could think of to be a better tutor than Harry as far as marketing and sales go. He’s the king.”

There is a long list of wineries that have used Harry as a consultant, including Fort Berens Estate Winery at Lillooet. That winery has transformed Lillooet and added an important new wine growing region in British Columbia. Rolf de Bruin, the co-founder of Fort Berens, says that Harry encouraged they consider Lillooet when Rolf and his wife found Okanagan land just too expensive. “I never really figured out how Harry discovered Lillooet, but he did tell me once that he had a long history with the area” Rolf told me. That was likely because Sumac Ridge’s first Chardonnays were made with grapes from the Bill Drinkwater’s Basque Vineyards near Ashcroft. Unfortunately, a brutal mid-November freeze killed most of the vines. Harry also encouraged Pat Bell, the Minister of Agriculture to support the subsequent grape-growing trials in Lillooet that proved grape-growing is viable there.

I don’t know what other marketing advice Fort Berens took from Harry – but the winery does produce a Meritage.

Contrary to what some have said, Harry did not take credit for everything. At his instigation, the Wine Festival Society launched the Founders Award. This was perhaps the only award that Harry did not get. Previous winners usually are asked to nominate candidates. I tried to nominate Harry once. He was quick to decline because of the apparent conflict of interest.
To be sure, Harry at times was ahead of his time.

Two examples: Pinnacle was the first $50 table wine from an Okanagan winery. Sumac Ridge put the first blend together in 1997 and released it in 2000. When I noticed three vintages gathering dust on the shelf of my local VQA store, I asked Harry how Pinnacle was doing. Well, he said, it has reduced the price resistance for Sumac Ridge’s $25 Meritage. Consumers decided that two bottles of Meritage were a better deal than one bottle of Pinnacle. Ultimately, Constellation Brands discontinued Pinnacle table wine – just in time to watch the competitors roll out one $50 wine after another.

The other example was Valley Wine Merchants, which Harry opened in Vancouver in 1989 with a shop called Winery On Broadway. It offered bulk wines to pubs and restaurants in stainless steel containers; it also let consumers bring in their own containers and fill them with wine. The business closed in 1991. Twenty years later Vancouver Urban Winery re-introduced bulk wine for restaurants in steel containers. This time, the restaurants bought in.

When you look as far over the horizon as Harry did, you will be taken in by the occasional mirage. It did not happen very often with Harry, however.

Finally, many of Harry’s peers commented on his ability to get around the myriad of regulations whenever they threatened to hold back the wine industry. When Sumac Ridge was founded, wineries were not allowed to operate restaurants. Harry cleverly established Sumac Ridge on an operating golf course. The club house put Sumac Ridge wines on its list and remained open for both golfers and visitors to the winery. Five or six years later, wineries finally were allowed to serve food.

Harry had a favourite saying about dealing with inconvenient regulations. I expect he used it when he presented himself at the Pearly Gates: “Forgiveness is easier than permission.”


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