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Mr. McWatters, who has died at 74, was known as the grandfather (or, to some, godfather) of B.C. wines, notably developing Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) standards in 1990.C.K. Stenberg/Supplied

Harry McWatters tasted and smelled in the terroir of British Columbia’s sunny Okanagan Valley the opportunity to produce world-class wines.

Mr. McWatters, who has died at 74, was known as the grandfather (or, to some, godfather) of B.C. wines, notably developing Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) standards in 1990.

“It helped create an awareness of the credibility of what we could do here,” he once said.

For decades before Mr. McWatters came along, much of the region’s production was regarded, if it was regarded at all, as an inexpensive tipple.

A free-trade deal and changes in provincial liquor laws, including the permitting of estate wineries, led him and other entrepreneurs to develop what is now a nearly $3-billion provincial business. The wineries of the Okanagan Valley now serve as a lure for tourists from around the globe.

He spent 51 years in the wine industry, a visionary whose business acumen and promotional smarts transformed the quality, not to mention reputation, of Okanagan wines from plonk to pleasure.

Ralph Henry Percy McWatters was born in Toronto on May 23, 1945, two weeks after wartime victory in Europe was celebrated with champagne toasts. He was the only son of three children born to the former Muriel Elizabeth Duke and Maurice Percy (Mac) McWatters. The family moved to Vancouver when the boy was 10. His father worked as a salesman for Toledo Scales before becoming a manager responsible for such publicity as weighing catches at salmon derbies. Mac McWatters died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 46 in 1958 while on a business trip.

The boy was raised in a household where wine was common at the dinner table. He imbibed small amounts with meals at a tender age. “We lived in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood, and I drank wine on a frequent basis,” he told The Globe and Mail two years ago. “Every Sunday, we’d have wine with dinner. My parents were very liberal about it, but I’m talking about two ounces, at most.” At 16, he began growing his own grapes.

He was a local manager for a national moving company in Vancouver when hired in 1968 as a salesman by Casabello Wines Ltd. He gained a sense of the desires of the sipping public and learned the needs of restaurateurs and sommeliers. It was a humble beginning to what would be a transformative, half-century career in the wine business.

Casabello’s introduction of bottled wine in reusable carafes in 1974 doubled sales, a valuable lesson about advertising and promotions for Mr. McWatters, who was by then the company’s sales manager.

In 1977, Mr. McWatters and his wife, the former Catherine Reidl, whom he married in 1969, moved with their children to Summerland in the Okanagan, where he handled marketing for Casabello. Two years later, the couple joined with Noreen and Lloyd Schmidt, a local grape farmer and viticulturalist, to purchase the 38-acre Sumac Ridge golf course. They planted grapevines on the first, second and ninth fairways, and turned the clubhouse into a retail outlet as the province’s first estate winery. Interest rates over 20 per cent nearly soured the venture, but the business soon bloomed. In 1983, Sumac Ridge wines were served to a visiting Queen Elizabeth at official functions and, three years later, Mr. McWatters presented Sumac Ridge wines at the B.C. Pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver.

A change in antiquated provincial liquor laws allowed the industry to flourish. The first vines in the Okanagan, which boasts a semi-arid desert climate in summer, had been planted in the mid-19th century by an oblate missionary for use only for celebration of the Eucharist. A modest grape-growing business was launched by Italian immigrants during the Depression, financed by a syndicate of farmers and investors, including hardware-store owner and future premier W.A.C. Bennett, a lifelong teetotaler. Okanagan labels, such as Calona Wines, were known more for their marketing than their vintages. Through the 1970s, popular taste for sweet wines dominated the domestic industry.

The free-trade agreement in 1988 allowed American wineries’ entry into the Canadian market, which they could dominate with large quantities of cheaper products. Mr. McWatters and others decided to preserve their industry by opting for quality over quantity, eschewing hardier hybrid grapes for vinifera grapes, which are more vulnerable in poor weather but produce better wines.

In an audacious move, Mr. McWatters purchased a fallow vineyard south of Oliver on 115 acres on the sun-drenched Black Sage Bench, which was planted with Bordeaux varieties to produce a blended wine known as meritage. Three years later, he purchased the See Ya Later Ranch, a winery outside Okanagan Falls.

Mr. McWatters was an indefatigable promoter of wines. In 1980, he was the founding chair of the Okanagan Wine Festival. A decade later, he was the founding chair of the B.C. Wine Institute. In 2007, he founded and led the B.C. Hospitality Foundation.

After unsuccessfully trying to purchase other wineries, Mr. McWatters sold Sumac Ridge in 2000 to Vincor International Ltd., based in Mississauga, Ont., Canada’s largest winery. The sale gave Sumac Ridge the resources to add to product lines. The founder stayed on in an executive role.

In 2003, Sumac Ridge was selected winery of the year by Wine Press Northwest, a trade publication, becoming the first Canadian winery to be so honoured. Mr. McWatters often described the award as his proudest achievement, a recognition that his plan a quarter-century earlier had come to fruition.

An announced retirement seemed only to revive the businessman, who released the first vintage of the McWatters Collection in 2007 before launching Time Winery in 2013 and Evolve Cellars in 2015. He worked closely with his adult children in the new businesses.

A practical joker who could perform sabrage on a wine bottle by using the edge of a ski, Mr. McWatters indulged an appetite for fishing and snowmobiling when not planting, tasting, selling, promoting or judging Okanagan wines.

As well as his many honours from the industry, which grew in the province to include 350 licensed wineries and 12,000 jobs, Mr. McWatters was named to the Order of British Columbia (2003) and inducted in the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame (2005). He received an honourary degree from Okanagan University College in Kelowna.

Mr. McWatters died in his sleep on July 23 at his Summerland home, one week after celebrating the first anniversary of the opening of Time Winery and Kitchen in a historic theatre in Penticton.

He leaves his second wife, Lisa Lalonde; two adult children, Christa-Lee McWatters and Darrien McWatters, from his first marriage; two grandsons; a sister; and, a stepbrother and a stepsister.

About 800 people attended a celebration of life held at a Penticton resort. It was his wish that his death be marked by the enjoyment of a glass of wine from British Columbia with a VQA imprimatur. A local newspaper columnist toasted the late winemaker by cracking a $23 bottle of Time 2018 Riesling, which, according to the winery, boasts “aromas of lime, lemon zest and stone fruit, which are echoed on the palate,” something no one ever said about an Okanagan wine before Mr. McWatters arrived.

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