CCOVI’s west coast connections spur student and graduate success

Whether its leading industry-driven research, hosting alumni networking events or running outreach seminars and workshops, Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) is connecting people from coast-to-coast — and those ties are helping drive student success.

“A strong network of professional and academic contacts is invaluable in this industry,” says Andrea Barker (MSc ’19). “I developed a rich network of contacts throughout my time at Brock which has helped me establish myself in the Canadian wine industry with unique opportunities for information sharing.”

Currently the Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Foxtrot Vineyards in Naramata, B.C., Barker was recently featured in Orchard & Vine Magazine. She discussed some of the innovative research taking place at the winery, crediting her time working alongside the CCOVI team with giving her the foundation for making great wines.

“The level of education I received at Brock has helped me immensely in my current role,” she says. “In my current position, I am working with many of the same cultivars and clones that I studied at Brock. This has allowed me to further explore and understand the influences of terroir and management decisions.”

Taylor Whelan (OEVC ’10) has also found success on the west coast, working as the winemaker at CedarCreek Estate Winery in Kelowna, B.C. Earning his own Orchard & Vine profile this year, Whelan has been putting his science background into practice as the winery transitions toward organic certification. This transformation has helped raised the profile of the winery, which has twice won Canada’s “Winery of the Year” award.

Taylor Whelan

He said that organic winemaking forces the ability to rely on fundamentals and “the tricks and tools you learned in school” because you can’t use any additives to do the work for you.

“The program at Brock has definitely given me what I need to succeed from a winemaking and viticulture standpoint,” he adds.

Earlier this year, Whelan returned to Brock’s CCOVI to host a networking seminar for Oenology and Viticulture (OEVI) students.

It was a perfect opportunity for Austin Szarek, who also has his sights set on the western wine industry, to learn more about the range of career options available to him across the country.

“It’s really nice to see that the alumni are advocating for the program,” says the OEVI co-op student entering his third-year this September. “That they still come back from as far as B.C. to do a talk is amazing and opens up so many doors. We see how they got into winemaking and that there are so many different ways to get to where they are.”

The opportunity to work in organic winemaking struck a chord with Szarek. After attending the seminar, he chose to pursue his current co-op placement in B.C., where he will be working as a viticulture technician assistant with Sebastian Farms until the end of August.

Julia Zhu, Associate Director of Co-op Education, says the hands-on, practical experience gained from work placements in the OEVI program is critical to helping students link their scientific training with their chosen field of work. A new online resource has also been created to help Brock co-op students and employers stay safe while working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While a degree, practical work experience and the right connections provide a solid foundation, Whelan stressed that it’s good old fashioned hard work that will ultimately lead to a successful career in the grape and wine industry.

“Book smarts and passion will get you so far, and then it’s hard work that gets you the other 10 per cent,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky in how fast I have gotten to where I am, but it’s also been because of long hours and a heap of missed weekends. Nothing replaces the value of hard work.”

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