The Okanagan would not be what it is today without the wine industry.
It is one of the ideas wine pioneer Harry McWatters will be presenting at the Nov. 25 TEDx Penticton held at the Cleland Theatre, while delving into the past, present and future of the industry.
“The economic impact here is very significant. I don’t think the average resident realizes how much the wine industry has invested in the Okanagan,” said McWatters.
From jobs, supplies, trucking and storage — Penticton has become a hub for wine businesses.
“The spinoff is very significant. Plus you think of all the visitors that come into the area. We are a huge draw. People may visit just a few wineries a day, but you think of how many meals they are eating out, the hotel rooms, buying gas and doing other activities — it is very significant,” said McWatters.
It wasn’t always that way. McWatters, founder of the province’s first estate winery Sumac Ridge, has been involved in the industry for 49 years. Starting at a time when there was just 14 wineries in B.C. and 3,400 acres of grapes in the ground.
“Today we are approaching 300 wineries, ciders and fruit wineries in the province and in excess of 11,000 acres of grapes and growing,” said McWatters, who was recognized as a leader in the Okanagan and provincial wine industry when he was honoured with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013.
In 1980 McWatters was part of that small group of 14 wineries that led the charge to establish free trade.
“Not everyone was thrilled with it, but it was really the most pivotal thing that happened in the history of our B.C. wine industry,” he said. “The industry could have easily disappeared, but there was enough of us then that were too old and too stubborn to be re-trained so we banded together. The existing wine industry is a result of those people involved then.”
Today, the Okanagan represents 90 per cent of all production in B.C. and supplies fruit to many other regions.
“We are the nucleus of the wine business, but I think there is still growth to come and opportunities in the future for other areas to grow,” said McWatters.
After starting Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in 1980, McWatters founded See Ya Later Ranch Estate Winery in 1995. He later sold that to Vincor Canada. McWatters continued as president of Sumac Ridge and See Ya Later Ranch, as well as being the vice-president of Vincor Canada. In 2008 he established Vintage Consulting Group Inc. and the Okanagan Wine Academy.
McWatters contribution to the wine industry didn’t start or end there. He led a group of wineries in 1980 to establish the Okanagan Wine Festival Society and at the same time was appointed by the province to chair the newly formed B.C. Wine Institute. McWatters also was instrumental in founding VQA Canada.
His latest project is with Encore Vineyards, transforming the former PenMar Theatre on Martin Street in Penticton into an urban winery — the first in the South Okanagan. The building will be home to TIME Winery, McWatters Collection and Evolve Cellars.
“This was an opportunity that presented itself and I was skeptical, but as my imagination started working it became pretty evident that its a great idea. It is going to be a multi-faceted facility,” said McWatters.
Read more: Time Winery in Penticton moving forward
The restored building will be used for brand-new winery production facility — including a crush pad — a barrel cellar, custom fermentation hall, lab, warehouse and administrative offices. When open to the public, the experience will include a tasting bar, a theatre for live performances, a small plates lounge, a 40-seat outdoor patio as well as a retail wine shop. A commercial kitchen will give the winery the ability to host public and private events. McWatters said they will also be hosting seminars.
“We have already had a lot of interest from the wine industry to use the facility. We are going to host a series of wine education programs that will be open to the public but targeted at our industry,” said McWatters.
The facility is still on target to be open next Spring in downtown Penticton.
“We want to complement what places like Bad Tattoo, Old Order Distillery and The Cannery do. I hear people referring to the downtown core as the entertainment area of Penticton, people can come to the Okanagan and visit the wineries by day and come back to here for lunch or dinner and walk to other business or back to their accommodation,” he said.
Tickets for the TEDx Penticton event on Nov. 25 are $30 for adults and $20 for students. They can be purchased at tedxpenticton.ca.
Read more on other TEDx Penticton presenters: