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A farewell to one of the builders of the West Coast's wine industry.
Harry McWatters passed away this week. If you had even a tangental connection to the wine industry, you knew the man. Chief among his accomplishments was building Sumac Ridge into a powerhouse before selling it, then doing the same with See Ya Later Ranch. In so doing, he helped map, plant and study the then largely unknown terrior of the Okanagan—not that anyone would have used that term back then.
Perspective is one of the most difficult things to grasp on anything that’s relatively new, like with our wine industry, but let me give it a shot: if it wasn’t for Harry McWatters proving that not just international grapes could grow here, but could be grown here profitably, then the wine industry that we all take for granted these days might not exist. There are dozens of wine regions around the world where people can grow grapes and make suitable wines: Texas, Virginia, Northern Baja. The differences between ones that languish in relative obscurity and the ones that march forward comes down to the existence of people like Harry. He’s someone who had a rare combo of pragmatist and dreamer that both inspires others and encourages them with their persistence.
And he never stopped. Long after he sold Sumac and SYL to Arterra—when he no longer had the need to keep grinding it out in the dirt—he was still at it: Time Winery, the McWatters Collection and Evolve were his three current labels. And he had just celebrated the one-year anniversary of that first one, an amazing new winery in Penticton.
For younger drinkers—those who’ve never known the feeling of looking at a dreary list of B.C. wine and thanking god there was a bottle of Sumac to save you—it’s tough to realize the impact the man made without an It’s a Wonderful Life-style interlude, one that shows you what wine drinking would’ve been like had Harry never been born. But trust me when I say please say a small cheers to him, because that skin-contact Pinot Gris wouldn’t exist save for him blazing the trail.
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