Tradition and progress often appear to be opposing factions, especially in our increasingly politicized world. But Christa-Lee and Darrien McWatters manage to honor their family’s incredible history and legacy in Canadian wine, while fearlessly pushing their brands into the future.
“We grew up in the industry,” Christa-Lee says. “Child labor was alive and well in our home, and after returning home from school, we’d often head over to the winery and help with bottling. But at the same time, our parents pushed us to ultimately do anything but get involved in the wine industry. They encouraged us to study what interested us, and that reverse psychology ultimately led to both of us returning, with enthusiasm, but also with a fresh perspective.”
Their father, the late Harry McWatters, is widely considered the grandfather of the entire Canadian wine industry. A few of his many accomplishments include founding the Sumac Estate Winery in 1980, then See Ya Later Ranch, along with the Okanagan Wine Academy and the Vintage Consulting Group. He also founded the Penticton, British Columbia’s TIME Family of Wines, which Christa-Lee and Darrien inherited after his unexpected passing in 2019. Under TIME’s umbrella are the family legacy brand the McWatters Collection, Evolve Cellars and Chronos. Each brand produces around 13,000 cases annually.
While the pair (who are now both in their late 40s) had, as Christa-Lee said, returned to the winery in the mid-90s, with Christa-Lee working as general manager, and Darrien as operations manager, their father’s death and then the pandemic, ultimately transformed what they saw as their—and the brand’s—trajectory.
In 2016, the McWatters family purchased the historic Pen-mar movie theater in downtown Penticton, with the goal of rehabilitating it, and breathing new life into it as an urban winery. By 2018, the four spacious theaters had become cellars, production facilities, events spaces. But the massive (ongoing) renovation, along with the logistical and financial challenges of the pandemic, created an opportunity for change, and growth of a different kind.
“We sold TIME to Five Vines Cellars in 2020,” says Christa-Lee. “We love Ron and Shelley Mayert, who own Five Vines, and honestly feel like they’ve become an extension of our own family. We are staying in our roles, and we are really excited to see where TIME goes. Right now, we are putting in a 17,000-square foot addition, which will more than double our capacity, adding a new barrel room, upgrading our tasting and events spaces. We are hopefully also going to be able to add a 300-seat rooftop patio, overlooking downtown.”
Change, for the McWatters, is a healthy and welcome part of life. Darrien’s journey, and her family’s reaction to her personal metamorphosis, is a powerful demonstration of the reach and power of their commitment to carefully considered advancement.
Darrien began publicly identifying as gender fluid about four years ago. But she quickly felt, she says, “the female inside of me emerge.” She then officially began the gender transition process; the transition came to full fruition in 2021 after Gender Affirming Surgery.
“I’ve always been a very open person, so in many ways my family wasn’t entirely shocked,” she says. “But it did take some adjustment. My dad is more old school of course, but eventually everyone realized that I was happier. We had a few great conversations about it before he died, and I’ll always be grateful for that. He never wanted me to not be who I am.”
“Sometimes, a label is important,” she notes. “My entire family just wanted her to be happy, and now we see that she is.”
Darrien and Christa-Lee take their prominent position as role models in the world of wine seriously, and both are keen to speak openly about the manner in which family, business, and the reality of modern life can overlap. In addition to being transparent about her transition, Darrien is actively working with youth organizations like Etcetera Youth Kelowna and RADAR Penticton, which promote equality and openness for trans and LTGBQ+ youth, as well she is a member of Team Trans Ice Hockey.
For Christa-Lee, she has always focused her desire to embrace diversity and change by employing the most qualified people, period.
“Interestingly, about 80 percent of our employees are female, and our entire management team is,” she says. “I just hire the most qualified people, but it is a refreshing change to see so many women in prominent roles at a winery.”
The pair see their personal—and their family’s—role in the world of wine as a reflection of the process of making wine itself.
“Wine is an evolution,” says Christa-Lee. “The way you grow it, pick it, process and age it, every choice you make, affects the quality and flavor of the final product. We’re excited to grow as individuals, a family and as brands.”
About Wine’s Most Inspiring People: Each year, Wine Industry Advisor chooses 10 individuals within the wine industry who showcase leadership, innovation, and inspiration. For the first time in 2021, WIA opened up the submission process to the industry at large. With over 100 nominees, the editorial team selected the top 10 individuals who they felt has truly positively impacted the US wine culture over the past year. Read more here.