Brock students learn to make Icewine in first-of-its-kind co-op

Not everyone appreciates chilly winter nights, but Niagara’s recent cold snap was welcomed by Brock University students Claire Findlater and Mario Spinosa, as it allowed them to participate in their first-ever Icewine harvest.

The third-year Oenology and Viticulture (OEVI) students are taking part in a first-of-its-kind Icewine co-op with Pillitteri Estates Winery, and they have been patiently waiting for temperatures to drop below –8 C so they could press the frozen grapes needed to make the specialty product.

Pillitteri Estates Winery, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake began their Icewine harvest last week, enlisting the help of Brock students participating in a unique co-op term.

The co-op gives Brock students hands-on experience with all aspects of working on a Canadian Icewine harvest.

Jamie Slingerland, Director of Viniculture for Pillitteri Estates, says the partnership between Brock and the winery is beneficial.

“From a resume-building perspective, working on a co-op at a renowned winery in Icewine is a tremendous opportunity; there’s not too many students who are able to say they’ve done that,” he says. “It’s also an honour to mentor these brilliant, hard-working students because they are the future and helping them learn means helping the future evolution of our industry.”

Mario Spinosa, a third-year Oenology and Viticulture student, stands in front of a basket press during his co-op at Pillitteri Estates Winery.

Pillitteri is one of the few wineries that has chosen to produce Icewine this year — allowing the students to also work on a rare vintage of the dessert wine.

Much of Canada’s Icewine sales is driven by tourism and duty-free shopping, which have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With that in mind, some wineries with enough inventory to meet this year’s demand decided to skip the Icewine harvest and focus more on table wines.

“Getting to do something so special to Canada in such a whirlwind year has been a really cool way for us to get that hands-on industry experience,” says Findlater. “Jamie is always so willing to help us with anything we need and there is so much experience and knowledge we are gaining from everyone we’re working with.”

Pillitteri, which is recognized internationally for its Icewine, has been partnering on research, outreach and student learning opportunities with Brock and the University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) for nearly a decade.

The winery is passionate about bringing on Brock students and worked with the Co-op, Career and Experiential Education office and Steven Trussler, CCOVI Senior Lab demonstrator and Academic Advisor for the OEVI program, to develop the Icewine co-op.

The goal is to offer it to students every year.

“We work together, hand-in-hand, to make industry connections, and present our students with amazing opportunities such as this,” says Melissa Beamer, Brock’s Manager, Talent Development and Engagement. “We are proud to be able to provide our students with great opportunities — especially during this challenging time — and we look forward to continuing this strong partnership and continuing to offer our students unique opportunities in this amazing industry.”

OEVI students take three co-op terms during their degree.

Trussler says it allows them to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to a real-world setting, make important industry connections and see their work tangibly impact the local grape and wine industry.

“This particular experience with Pillitteri also provides practical experience with a style of wine production that not all students will have when they graduate — which sets them apart when it’s time to start looking for jobs,” he adds.

During their work term, the students will tackle everything from working in the field and understanding how the harvesting machinery operates, to crafting the wine itself and learning how it’s promoted and sold in a retail environment.

Spinosa and Findlater also completed prior co-op terms working in Pillitteri’s vineyard last summer.

They say the OEVI program offers flexibility to choose co-ops that appeal to their interests and they’ve been able to gain a breadth of valuable learning experiences that will help them achieve their career goals.

“This profession is both an art and a science and you really need to get the hands-on experience — which is what this co-op really gives you,” says Spinosa. “Our program has given us the ability to learn different things so we can choose what path to go on, and we’ve been able to build a community of contacts in the industry to draw from in the future.”

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