Harry McWatters is a Canadian wine industry icon.  As founder, director, president, and chair of more boards, associations, foundations and wine industry bodies than you can shake a stick at, and as one who has accomplished more firsts and received more accolades than any other human in the Canadian wine industry (that I can think of), calling him an icon is no exaggeration.

When I received the invitation to a McWatters winemaker’s dinner at Sky Bistro on the top of Sulphur Mountain, I couldn’t RSVP fast enough.

The invitation came from Pursuit, a company that has acquired several hotels and attractions in Canada and the USA and is in the process of building an attraction in Iceland. They purchased the Banff Gondola and spent 26 million dollars renovating the summit building which includes the Sky Bistro.

The McWatters dinner was the fourth of six dinners in this unique culinary series. 

The wines presented at this dinner were from two wineries under the McWatters’ umbrella: Evolve Cellars in Summerland and Time, in Penticton, as well as Chardonnay and a Meritage from the McWatters Collection.

The job of wine pairing was left to Tristan MacLaggan, a B.C.-born and raised, London-trained sommelier. Before coming to the mountain, MacLaggan managed food and beverage programs for the Jumeirah Group in Dubai and the Fairmont Babal Bahr in Abu Dhabi among others. 

Tristan MacLaggan

The menu for this dinner was prepared by Scott Hergott, Executive Chef at SkyBistro, he of longstanding Fairmont background who spent 19 years working his way up the culinary ladder at a littleplace down the hill called The Banff Springs Hotel.

Hergott is a chef in every sense of the Old French word “chief” meaning he is a leader, mentor, guide, counsellor, buyer, organizer and accomplished cook.

There was no shortage of talent the night 30 guests and I sipped and supped at the McWatters Winemaker’s Dinner. This was an extraordinary event and a sum of all its parts: the venue, the guests, the food, the wine and the service.

The guest experience started at the bottom with an eight-minute, 7,510-foot ascension to the summit. The gondola ride gave us time to take in the glory of the Rocky Mountains, the valley, and the lights of the town sparkling below.

Vintage gondola cars at the base. 
Today’s gondola car.

We arrived to find the dining room aglow with candlelight and enough cutlery, plates and stemware on a long table to see us through the next several hours and multiple courses of food and drink.

The summit houses not only the Bistro, but also an interpretive centre, a mini movie theatre, a gift shop, and a viewing deck with firepits and Adirondack chairs. There is much to see and do in that building. If you go during regular hours, plan on spending at least a couple of hours there. I’ll put a blog post about my daytime experience in the next day or so, so check back for that. 

For the winemaker’s dinner, we started with crispy duck confit hors d’oeuvres and glasses of Effervescence, the sparkling rosé wine from Evolve Cellars. And then we got down to business:

Course 1: Brussel Salad (shaved Brussels sprouts, local honey, roasted beets, frisée, Valbella Meats prosciutto, Manchego cheese and balsamic reduction). Wine pairing: Evolve Cellars 2016 Pinot Gris
Course 2: Pacific Crab Cakes (fresh crab, citrus aioli, crisp capers)
Wine pairing: McWatters Collection 2016 Chardonnay
Course 3: Wild BC Mushroom Soup (with tarragon and truffle oil)
Wine pairing: Time Winery 2016 Cabernet Franc

A hibiscus and grapefruit granité acted nicely as a palate cleanser before the next course. 

Course 4: Stout-braised Short Rib
Wine pairing: McWatters Collection 2016 Meritage
Course 5: Lemon Tart
Evolve Cellars 2016 Riesling

The finishing touch: a selection of fine regional cheeses. 

Tourist attractions and good food don’t usually go together—make that, they never go together—but Pursuit is set on changing that.

These winemaker dinners featured dishes created by Chef Hergott to pair with specific wines, but the Northern Lights (a buffet on the 2nd level) features a set menu for lunch and the Sky Bistro has set menus for lunch and dinner during regular business hours. If the prime rib beef dip I had at Sky Bistro the following day is any indication of the rest of the menu, then kudos to Hergott and his team. That sandwich was delicious.

The Pursuit team should be proud of their efforts. You can’t put a price tag on unique experiences that create life-long memories made with new and old friends alike. 

The next time you head to Banff, take the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain. Have lunch or dinner and take in what the summit has to offer. 

Also, the next time you’re in a wine store, look for wines by Harry McWatters—that includes Evolve, Time, and anything from the McWatters Collection. Every single wine I tasted that night was spectacular. 

Life is short; drink good wine. And, go eat on top of a mountain.

For some glorious photos of Banff and Jasper, head on over to Pursuit’s Instagram feed.