British Columbia’s wine industry has come a long way since the first grape vines were planted in the Okanagan Valley over a century ago. Today, the region is recognized as a world-class producer of high-quality wines, thanks in no small part to the pioneering efforts of those who paved the way for the industry’s growth and success.
Meet The Pioneers of the BC Wine Industry
These wine pioneers, like Harry McWatters and others, established the foundations upon which the modern BC wine industry is built, and their legacy lives on in the region’s thriving wine culture. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at the trailblazers who helped to shape the BC wine industry and their enduring impact on the region’s wine production.
Photo credit: Town Hall Brands
In remembering Harry McWatters, his longtime publicist, Leeann Froese, shares her thoughts on the impact he made on the wine industry, and the enduring legacy he leaves behind.
“To say that Harry McWatters is a legend in the Canadian wine industry would be an understatement. Harry, who celebrated his 51 vintage in 2018, is widely considered to be the foundation of the BC wine industry, the ‘grandfather’ of BC wine, a tireless industry leader in moving quality wine growing and winemaking forward, a marketing visionary, and a passionate advocate for BC wine.”
Harry McWatters, a legend in the BC wine industry, began his career in 1968 and quickly established himself as a pioneer and innovator. Over the years, he achieved an impressive list of accomplishments, including founding the British Columbia Wine Institute (BCWI) and Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) Canada, as well as the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society.
Harry is widely remembered for founding Sumac Ridge Estate Winery. The brand quickly became one of the most recognizable in the region. In addition to releasing Canada’s first traditional-method sparkling wine, a feat that solidified his reputation as a true visionary, McWatters also introduced Canada’s first Meritage, a Bordeaux-style red wine blend, and founded the BC Hospitality Foundation, which provides support for hospitality workers facing financial crises.
Once he sold Sumac Ridge, Harry quickly embarked on new and exciting endeavours. Continuing his legacy of innovation, he founded TIME Estate Winery in 2013 and Evolve Cellars in 2015. His vision for the perfect wine experience led him to relocate TIME Winery & Kitchen to the beautifully renovated Pemnar Theatre in downtown Penticton in 2018, creating an exciting new hub for wine lovers throughout the Okanagan Valley.
Harry McWatters’ contributions to the BC wine industry have been instrumental in establishing the region as a world-class producer of high-quality wines.
Read our featured pairing, Wine With Carbonara, as a tribute to Mr. McWatters.
CedarCreek Estate Winery
🥂 Cheers to CedarCreek Estate Winery, established in 1987 by Senator Ross Fitzpatrick.
Established in 1987 by Senator Ross Fitzpatrick, CedarCreek is one of the oldest and most respected wineries in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Back then, the region had only a few wineries, and CedarCreek was among the first to recognize its potential for producing world-class wines.
In 1988, when the Free Trade Agreement was looming, many local wineries were considering abandoning their vineyards for fruits like peaches and apples.
However, Fitzpatrick and other BC wine pioneers decided to stay committed to planting vinifera grapes, believing that quality wines were the key to success. This decision has since helped the industry to grow exponentially.
Today, even after selling CedarCreek Estate Winery, the Fitzpatrick family remains involved in the wine industry through their family-owned Greata Ranch, which now focuses on producing exceptional Okanagan sparkling wine at Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards.
Gehringer Brothers Estate Wine
Let’s raise a glass to one of the Okanagan Valley’s wine pioneers, Gehringer Brothers!
Walter and Gordon Gehringer purchased their vineyard site in 1981, at a time when grape-growing was still in its early days in the region. Having learned winemaking in Germany, the brothers brought their Old World knowledge and skills to their winery, joining a select few BC-born winemakers trained in Europe.
Today, they are renowned for their unwavering commitment to excellence, competing head-to-head with the world’s finest winemakers and earning numerous accolades.
Situated in the heart of the Golden Mile Bench, one of the Okanagan’s most prestigious grape-growing regions, Gehringer Brothers is a true gem among the neighbouring Oliver wineries.
Let’s raise a glass to Nk’Mip Cellars, the first indigenous-owned and operated winery in North America! The Osoyoos Indian Band planted their first vineyards in 1968, making them one of the oldest vineyards in the Okanagan Valley.
For many years, the band sold their grapes to other wineries. But in 1979, Chief Clarence Louie took the lead and oversaw the development and expansion of the band’s winery operations, starting with a one-acre piece of land.
On September 13th, 2002, Nk’Mip Cellars winery officially opened its doors, marking the beginning of a $25 million ecotourism project that now spans 1,200 acres of the band’s lands near Osoyoos Lake.
This ambitious project established Nk’Mip as a leading southern Okanagan tourist destination. In addition to the winery, there’s a Native cultural centre, a hotel, an 18-hole golf course, and a year-round RV park which is our favorite Osoyoos camping spot.
See Ya Later Ranch
The history of See Ya Later Ranch is steeped in tradition, dating back to 1920 when Major Hugh Fraser purchased the property high above the Okanagan Valley.
Fraser’s love for his four-legged friends was well-known, and the ranch became a gathering place for elaborate events. When Fraser’s wife left the rustic surroundings, she left a note that said “See ya later,” which he adopted as a lighthearted closing to his correspondence.
In 1995, the winery was purchased by the late BC wine pioneer Harry McWatters and was later renamed See Ya Later Ranch. Despite changes in ownership and branding, the winery remains committed to producing exceptional wines while honoring its rich history.
With over sixty years of viticulture experience, Quails’ Gate is a true pioneer in the BC wine industry. They started planting grapes on their West Kelowna property back in 1961, long before a bridge connected the area to the rest of the Okanagan Valley.
The winery has a rich history that dates back to 1956, when Richard Stewart Sr. purchased the land. Eventually, the family decided to establish their own winery in 1989, and it has been a family business ever since, with three generations now working together.
Quails’ Gate Winery is known for its commitment to quality winemaking, and has won numerous awards for its wines, including the prestigious Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in British Columbia Wines.
But it’s not just about the wine at Quails’ Gate. The winery’s on-site Old Vines Restaurant is a must-visit destination for foodies, offering a farm-to-table experience that showcases locally sourced and sustainably grown ingredients.
Throughout its long history, Quails’ Gate has remained committed to being responsible stewards of the land and the community, while also providing unforgettable wine and culinary experiences for its visitors. So here’s a toast to Quails’ Gate and their continued success! 🥂
The names “George and Trudy Heiss” are widely referenced as pioneers of the British Columbia wine industry. In 1972, the Heiss family planted their first vineyard with the intention of supplying grapes to commercial wineries. However, they were dissatisfied with the quality of wine produced from their grapes and decided to experiment with vinifera varietals to make their own wine.
Not only were they the first to plant the Pinot Gris vine in Canada, but they also played a significant role in establishing the estate winery system in the region.
The BC wine industry underwent a significant transformation with the opening of Gray Monk Winery in 1982. Commercial wineries previously controlled the market, making it challenging for small-scale producers to create wine from their grapes. But thanks to George and Trudy’s relentless efforts in launching Gray Monk and amending regulations, the industry’s landscape began to change.
George and Trudy, along with other pioneering winery owners banded together to create the Vintners’ Quality Alliance (VQA), which provided a much-needed level of legitimacy for estate wineries in British Columbia.
After selling Gray Monk Cellars to Andrew Peller in 2017, George and Trudy Heiss retired. However, the news of George’s passing on June 29, 2021, brought incredible sadness to the wine industry and those who knew him. Despite his passing, George’s incredible legacy in the BC wine industry lives on through Gray Monk Cellars and the significant impact he and Trudy had on the BC wine industry.
In 1927, renowned local horticulturist JW Hughes planted table grapes in what would become one of the Okanagan Valley’s most esteemed vineyard properties. Decades later, in 2004, proprietor Eric Savics saw an opportunity to acquire the site, known as Pioneer Vineyards, and realized its true potential as a premier winery.
After tasting several vintages of wines made by the former owner, Savics recognized the vineyard’s exceptional quality and the unique terroir of the region. He and his team decided to focus on producing a small, terroir-driven line of wines made from Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, fully realizing the site’s ultimate potential.
Today, Tantalus Vineyards offers a truly unique wine-tasting experience, combining spectacular lake views, a historic old vineyard, and a new, state-of-the-art LEED* winery. Visitors can enjoy premium, single-vineyard wines in a stunning, gallery-style tasting room adorned with art from Canada’s top artists.
*LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a certification program that recognizes sustainable building practices. A LEED winery is a winery that has been designed, constructed, and operates using sustainable practices in areas such as energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, and use of environmentally friendly materials. LEED certification is a globally recognized standard for green building and indicates that the winery has met strict sustainability standards.