Harry McWatters on British Columbia wine
If any one man can be said to have put British Columbia on the world’s wine map, it is Harry. When the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement disrupted the traditional wine business of British Columbia in 1988, Harry McWatters saw opportunity where most saw ruin. The founder of Sumac Ridge winery, Harry has been a vital leader in developing quality standards for winegrowing, winemaking, and wine marketing in the province.
In British Columbia the impact of free trade in 1988 was a dramatic turn of events: 3,400 acres of grapes were pulled out, and all but 1,000 were left. That gave the industry a platform where we had to band together, because we would only be able to survive together and not individually.
The positive that came out of this was a rebirth. We recognized that because of the severity of our weather and the cost of labor and land, we could never be successful as a commodity wine industry. We had to specialize, produce premium wines, and insist on quality. We spent 10 years working on wine quality standards and the idea of appellation BC. Out of that work came the VQA standards (Vintners Quality Alliance) and the British Columbia Wine Institute.
Whatever people think of VQA, I firmly believe we would not have built a BC wine industry without it. Today 96% of BC wines are VQA and without it the world wouldn’t know we made wine here at all. This is one of the most pivotal things that has happened in the last 25 years! We went from 14 wineries in 1988 to more than 200 today.
Looking forward, we have to realize that things haven’t changed all that much. We still can’t succeed in commodity wines, and we must be focused on raising the bar on quality—and we have to let people know we’re doing that. We grow more than 60 different grape varieties in the province, and if you asked 20 winemakers what was our best grape you’d get 20 different answers. That diversity is our strength.
The growth of wine in BC has come hand-in-hand with increased attention to culinary culture and sustainability. There are more fine dining and accommodation resources in wine country than ever before, and Vancouver as a culinary center has been a great driver of growth. And there is still room to grow. More people are planting in untraditional places. Of course, there are economic challenges—the cost of land and the economy in general—but the opportunities are still great and there are wonderful things to come in British Columbia wine!
Hear other Northwest wine pioneers speak to the Pacific Northwest wine region:
From the March/April 2012 issue of Northwest Palate.