NOTL winery and St. Catharines’ Brock University team up for lessons in science and art

Photo Credit: Google Maps

Brock University’s oenology and viticulture students can now work a wintertime icewine placement, thanks to a one-of-a-kind co-op program between Brock and Pillitteri Estates Winery.

According to Melissa Beamer, manager of talent development and engagement at Brock, the co-op originated out of an existing relationship between Brock and Pillitteri Estates. Normally, students could work in the fields of Pillitteri Estates for their summer placements, but it was at the request of Jamie Slingerland, director of viticulture at pillitteri Estates, to create a wintertime program that would allow students the unique opportunity to make icewine.

Students weren’t initially scheduled for placements during the winter, given that it’s the “down time” for wine making. Despite that, Beamer said the oenology and viticulture program was able to adjust students’ schedules to make it work.

“We recognized right away that it’s something that sets Niagara apart and something that sets Brock apart, and we really wanted to make sure that we had our students have that type of amazing experience,” Beamer said.

Pillitteri Estates is the world’s largest estate producer of icewine per Slingerland, who has been with the company since its origins in 1993. He said despite Pillitteri being a world-renowned winemaker, he found that local graduating students were unaware of the company and job call-outs weren’t getting the desired response.

“We were really something these kids really wanted, but they didn’t know it. And so we needed to make ourselves known to them,” he said. “We need to enhance the students’ knowledge as much as possible.”    

“This icewine co-op for degree students is the first that’s ever happened anywhere in the world,” Slingerland said. He explained that the unique climate of the Niagara region is what allows icewine to be made. The natural moderation of arctic winds by Lake Ontario and the local landscape in Niagara prevents the grape vines from freezing over, even in the winter.

Mario Spinosa, a third-year oenology and viticulture student at Brock, said that his field of study is very hands-on. “This is the art portion of the course. and it’s very necessary to my program,” said Spinosa. He said putting together the science and the art of winemaking at Pillitteri really helps him as a student. “It’s the passing down of knowledge. Taking it and hoping to pass it down again in the future, that’s what I think is the most important part,” he said.

Third-year oenology and viticulture student Claire Findlater said she’d been working at Pillitteri since the previous summer, so she got to see the grapes grow before the winter harvest. Findlater said that although the job requires getting up early and working it in the cold, it’s well worth it. In respect to her career, she said “It means a lot for me, because it is such a unique and special experience, not many people can say they’ve done this sort of thing.” Findlater said that she thinks just the knowledge of her experience will be a “cool thing to have in my toolbelt.”