Harry McWatters is a leader in the British Columbia wine industry for the past 40+ years. In 1980, he founded BC’s first estate winery, Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, and later started See Ya Later Ranch Estate Winery in 1995. He purchased and planted vines on his Sundial Vineyard on Black Sage Road in 1993.
With Sumac Ridge Harry was able to make the first commercially successful Okanagan sparkling wine, the first to have a winery restaurant, the first winery in Canada to use “Meritage” on its Bordeaux blends, and the first Okanagan winery to release a $50 bottle of wine.
Harry is currently the owner of TIME Estate Winery in the Okanagan and he loves blends; Red and White, which are produced from his Sundial Vineyard grapes. I was lucky enough to enjoy a lunch meeting with Harry in Vancouver over Christmas, and to talk about a wide range of wine topics as they affect BC. Read on to see what Harry has to say.
My Interview with Harry McWatters
MyWinePal: What is your philosophy about wine?
Harry: My philosophy about wine is that the two most important things are time and place. First of all the place involves the climate and soil, and understanding climate and soil. It’s not just understanding about what people think it is, but how has it changed. For all of the thinking that we have had about change the place hasn’t changed. We haven’t seen significant climate change much in the Okanagan Valley. In the Okanagan Valley we get more hours of sunlight than any other place in North America and that hasn’t changed. We are also in a rain shadow. Our 30-year average of precipitation is less than 6 inches and that varies a little bit but the 30-year average hasn’t changed. We get more heat units than places like Napa and Sonoma and that hasn’t changed. When you look at the last 10 years there might be a little change but I can’t tell you that it’s significantly warmer than in the other decade.
I do believe we are seeing climate change over a long period of time. I don’t know that it’s necessarily global warming as we have not seen average higher temperature in years like last year where we are comparing to temperatures in 1998. You cannot judge from one year. We had a long spell of hot temperature in 1998. We didn’t have that this year. We had warm, consistent temperatures, but didn’t have spikes. We had a cooler September than most years.
And for us the name of the winery “Time“. We bought our vineyard on the Black Sage Road in 1992. There has been more extensive research done on that property then on any other in BC. That’s where the Becker project was that tested vitis vinifera. Through the 1990s we did 3 years of very extensive research on the property and we continue to monitor a number of things. As far as average temperature and what’s happening over the years our vineyard manager, Dick Cleave, lives across the street. He’s been farming here for 40 years and so I have a real comfort level with his knowledge. We have real comfort level of what we are doing with fruit, but it doesn’t mean you stop learning. We know what parts of the vineyard perform the best for us. We crop probably lighter than we should but everything we do is in the name of enhancing quality. This resonated for me probably 10 years ago when somebody was interviewing Dick, while I listened. He said he used to phone me on a regular basis and I told him he doesn’t have to. He can make his own decisions as long as the decision he makes is on the side of quality.
Our philosophy at both the winery and in the vineyard is that we are going to farm sustainably. I do not have a burning desire to be organic for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons is that I have seen lots of examples of poor farming under the banner of organic. I’ve seen people farming organic that are totally irresponsible with the use of water. We farm sustainably since we bought the property and that has always been our intent. Today with irrigation we irrigate probably not much more than 50% of what we did through the 1990s and part of that is because the vines are well established and we give them their drink more frequently than we ever did before but in much smaller quantities just so they stop from being stressed. So sustainably to me is something we need to think about.
MyWinePal: New Zealand and Chile have the banner of being sustainable.
Harry: I don’t think the average consumer understands sustainability. It means we’re going to accept certain tolerances that we’re going to spray if needed. The other thing they don’t know is that the Okanagan is very pristine so we do not require a lot of spray.
After 20 years of farming it was pretty evident to us that we always reserved a spot in the vineyard for a winery and when we first started the Time winery in 2007, we made a small quantity of McWatters Collection. I don’t actually know how we chose the name. Not this time. Next time. It was about time to start the winery. It’s an easy name for people to remember.
I get lots of people saying what about Time magazine? We’re not going to publish anything. It is amazing how many people associate the colour red with Time magazine as red is always on the front of the magazine, but it’s not always in the font. The font is red, white, blue, green, or black. It’s probably because the border tends to be red. We’re not copying them.
MyWinePal: How would you differentiate McWatters Collection from Time Estate?
McWatters Collection is a place holder, a legacy. The kids grew up in the wine business with me and they will make a decision in the future whether they want to continue the winery or whether they want to take the brand name somewhere else. As far as the wines, McWatters Collection only produces its red Meritage and Chardonnay. McWatters Collection is bigger and bolder and in your face. “As my daughter would say, kind of like my Dad.” I say that TIME Estate is a little more elegant and refined, kind of like my daughter.
The Time Meritage is based on a Merlot platform that typically is in the 60% range. In this particular vintage we’re looking at 60% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 11% Cabernet Franc. Proportionately we’ve always started there but we think we make that particular vintage a little better with a little or a little more two or three of the varieties. With McWatters the Meritage will always be built on Cabernet Sauvignon. The latest vintage is 68% Cabernet Sauvignon with 20% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc. There is little difference in barrel selection but we don’t make that blending decision until the end of the vintage. We will take the bigger bolder examples of the Cabernet. Maybe a little heavier toast and a little heavier percentage of American oak.
In the white Meritage it is all French oak. But it is not only oak that’s used; there’s also stainless barrels. We select barrels with a higher percentage of French oak. I would say the public would find Time a little more Traditional Bordeaux-style, and McWatters a little more New World style. I’m not going to argue if that’s what they find that’s what they find. Neither were intentional on my part; to set the two as being distinctly different.
MyWinePal: I noted your wines are not shy on body and flavour or oak. What’s your wine making philosophy?
Harry: That has been my philosophy. I should tell you that until now I have been the sole decision maker but my kids have opinion about it and my daughter Christa-Lee has been a lot more involved in the final plans in the 2013 vintage. We hired wine maker Lawrence Buhler on August 1st and we are thrilled. He’s vinified all of the 2015 vintage and he had an opinion and input in the 2014 Reds. He was a great find for us for a number of reasons but primarily that we required someone with the technical ability and the experience to bring to the table. He comes here from Ontario. He is also been in Australia. He’s a Brock graduate. He’s a young guy at 37 but has phenomenal experience in that short time. He understands the craft, he understands the art of wine making, where we are, and where we want to go. He is not blind to the fact that we are a for-profit venture. There are many wine makers that make wine that they like and at the end of the day if you don’t sell it you better have a big appetite for what you made.
MyWinePal: Of all the wines you made what would you say is your most memorable wine?
Harry: That’s a tough question. I prefer the McWatters Meritage 07 to the 09 at the moment, but I think that could just be because of the extra aging. Subsequent vintages are drinking very well. We have a just a couple bottles of the 07 left. I had a bottle in the last six or eight weeks and I’m really pleased at how it has really evolved so nicely in the bottle. It’s elegant. It’s really well integrated. I’ve told people that I believe that these wines and stand up easily through their 10th birthday. I’m very confident of that. We don’t ask more from the fruit then and is prepared to give us. We get as much extraction as comfortable you’re keeping the white elegant. That’s all happening with all of them.
MyWinePal: At one of the VQA tastings we had a review of aged BC wines. Is was pretty amazing. There wasn’t a lot of wines to taste. I guess most wineries would have their own private library of wines that they are keeping and checking over time.
Harry: I have the benefit of having Sumac Ridge wines. I have Pinnacle, a number of vintages, and Meritage as well as single varieties going back a long way. In 2009 I bottled half a dozen cases of the components <meaning not the blend, but the individual grapes varieties> just to watch how they progress. I am pleased with the way that they continue to evolve but what it has proven to me over again is I’m much happier with the sum of the parts.
MyWinePal: One of my other questions is what should BC wineries do more of?
Harry: The first thing I think all BC wineries need to do is to continue to raise the bar on quality. Continue to be consistent about their messaging about where they come from and certification. I don’t believe that any winery should have any benefit in BC today if its not VQA certified wine. VQA today is still really important. Not as important as it was before, and some people say I’m not VQA. I also hear people say why isn’t so and so not VQA? I cannot speak for them. But they tell me they sell all their wine and they don’t need VQA because they sell the wine anyway, BUT if it wasn’t for BC VQA nobody would be driving up their driveway. If they participated in the VQA it would mean that the VQA would be that much stronger and we would all benefit. Some people may say it’s too expensive. It costs $100 per wine per vintage. If you produce 100 cases it will cost you $1 per box; 1000 cases is $0.10 a box.
MyWinePal: From all the winery principals that I’ve talked to, they are all really good supporters of VQA. Nobody that I’ve talked to has said that we should get rid of VQA. Everybody says we still need it.
Harry: I agree I’ve been working on this for many years. Would you support VQA without a tasting panel? My answer is yes. With one condition. Every VQA wine sold needs to be certified, needs to go through the same process with an audit. At this point we are only rejecting two or three percent of the wines and consumers can sort of what they like or don’t like. We have wines that are not VQA and these wineries put a geographic indicator other than Okanagan Valley on the label. Take for example a Chardonnay. If it’s not VQA, nobody is checking to see if its from Naramata Bench, if that is what is on the label. No checking to make sure its 85% Chardonnay. No checking to make sure its 95% of the vintage. No checking to see if there’s any water added to it. I’m not saying that people are doing that but there is nobody checking to see. I can tell you if they are crunched economically, or they have a high acid, there’s nothing from stopping you from putting water in it. All those things can be done, but under VQA but it would have to be cleared. Spend more time on auditing and enforcement, and if people are violating the rules turf them. Make it public. I think we will get more high quality wines.