FACULTY FOCUS: Debbie Inglis on uncorking a life of wine in Niagara

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If you’re looking for a good wine recommendation, there’s likely no one better to ask than Debbie Inglis, Director of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI).

But for Inglis, who is also a core scientist in CCOVI and Professor of Biological Sciences, a truly special wine is a well-integrated oaked Chardonnay. It was one of the first grapes she ever planted and tried.

Inglis, whose Brock career has spanned more than 20 years, spent the first few years of her life with her parents and two older brothers in Port Dalhousie, while the family owned and rented farms across the Niagara region. In 1981, the family moved to their farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake fulltime, allowing Inglis and her siblings to experience growing up on a vineyard and being introduced to the grape and wine industry at an early age.

Inglis and her husband, Rob, along with their two 140-pound Leonberger dogs, Piper and Lachlan, live on that same farm today, which still houses an active vineyard.

Inglis’ dogs, Piper and Lachlan, enjoy the shade provided from the farm’s trees.

“As a youngster, you don’t really appreciate what the farm brings to you, but we always farmed together,” she says.

Her mother organized the vineyard’s hand labour crew, a job that Inglis and her brothers did together. As they got older, they graduated to driving tractors and doing implementation work. They planted their vineyards at a time before tractors had GPS tracking, requiring the use of tension wires and hand planting.

As with many working farms, it required the entire family’s efforts.

“A lot of teamwork and comradeship came from that,” she says. “In addition to further solidifying that family unit, it also brought in a lot of our friends from the region. That extended to my mom’s friends who were looking for work throughout the summer and some of my dad’s friends when they were out of work.”

During the ’70s, the grape and wine industry was changing profoundly by moving from juice and hybrid grape production to vinifera grape production, a higher quality of grape used in premium wine production.

Inglis (second from left) and her friends often spent summers working on her family farm.

While working on the farm was Inglis’ summer job throughout high school and university, she didn’t see herself there long-term. After receiving her PhD in Biochemistry from McMaster University, she worked in her field of study for several years until the company she worked for in Burlington relocated its operations to California.

Inglis’ roots, however, were in Niagara.

She decided to stay, and the timing aligned almost simultaneously with CCOVI’s opening.

“My family was still actively grape farming and my dad said, ‘There’s this great new initiative opening at Brock. You should see if there is an opportunity there.’ Inniskillin Hall hadn’t even opened its doors yet.”

Inglis decided to pursue her post-doc at CCOVI while working with a yeast researcher. Two months later, the researcher left to pursue another opportunity.

“We had this brand-new research facility about to open and didn’t have a wine yeast person ready to occupy the lab,” she says. “I was asked to stay for a one-year contract. I was thrilled and it led into further opportunities.”

Inglis developed her research program around yeast issues during fermentation, concentrating on a topic pivotal to the Canadian wine industry — Icewine. In 2008, she was named Director of CCOVI, and in 2010, she was crowned Grape King, which represents grape-growing excellence in Ontario and helps promote the province’s grape and wine industry.

CCOVI, an internationally recognized research institute, focuses on the research priorities of the Canadian grape and wine industry. In addition to industry targeted research, the institute provides continuing educational and outreach services of the grape and wine community in innovative ways.

“CCOVI is breaking down barriers and doing things a little differently which requires change,” says Inglis. “Change isn’t always easy to implement, but when you have a vision and teamwork, you can work through those challenges.”

Working through challenges, she says, has been made easier by collaboration with a variety of partners across the University.

“What I really value at Brock is the collegiality, teamwork and joint enthusiasm that goes into the multi-functional parts of any operation and initiatives like CCOVI,” says Inglis. “It goes beyond your faculty consortium. It’s the administrative support staff, senior lab demonstrators, teaching assistants science stores personnel, office of research services, marketing and communications experts and interacting with other units for assistance and opportunities.”

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