With the Niagara Icewine festival just last week, the Focus spread this week will take a personal and creative look at what it takes to produce wine in the region and Brock’s own Oenology and Viticulture program through the eyes of its alumni.
We ran through the vineyard with bucket hats, big boots, and busy eyes searching for the temperature loggers placed strategically within each vineyard. Julie and I dodged clouds of tiny black insects swarming in from the bright bluish-green lake beginning to warm up across the back road.
“There are too many gnats out here!” I screamed.
“Those are midges”, Julie corrected me, “don’t worry, they don’t bite!” Midges — those terrifying, harmless flies that you never notice until you are face to face, swatting huge black clouds.
All I could think during that moment was: “how did I get into this?” I was aimlessly running through vineyards, trying to be the sidekick to my older sister’s thesis. I wanted to help, but I couldn’t contribute much aside from whimpering at every insect and complaining about the heat. I had to remind myself that this vineyard hunter is not just my sister — not your typical ‘wine-o.’ Julie Lupia, a Brock Alumni with an Honours BSc (Bachelor of Science), graduated from the Oenology and Viticulture program this past spring of 2015. To complete her degree with honours, Julie needed to do an undergraduate thesis. Her thesis took eight months, saw her conduct research at four vineyards, and required countless hours of writing. Julie’s examination of “Grapevine leafroll” in the Niagara region was a significant example of what an Oenology student could choose to do for their thesis.
“Grapevine leafroll is a disease that results in yield losses and problems with fruit maturity, resulting in lower quality must and lower quality resultant wine,” Julie explained. “This is a huge issue in cool climate grape growing regions, such as Ontario, where we struggle to ripen some of our reds to begin with… In the Fall of 2013, a closer look at vineyards with symptoms revealed the presence of insect vectors, confirming suspicions of grapevine leafroll, and that’s where my project began.”
The vineyards Julie chose to investigate were located in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Lincoln, Ontario.
“Because this was the first study in Ontario to look at the vectors of the disease detail, my main goals were to determine the species and study their life cycle so that growers could better determine when to spray for mealybugs,” said Julie.
Mealybugs play no games, that is for sure. They seem harmless, but after peeling back bark, it is clear that is not the case. We scurried up and down each line of vines.
“Do you see the logger yet?” I asked.
“I have no idea where I put it,” Julie laughed in my direction as I looked less than enthusiastic at the vineyard.
Rows and rows of what looked to be endless land surrounded us. I could not help but admire the patience of those who do this everyday, such as Julie.
“Everyday is a learning curve,” explained Julie. “No work day is the same… Just when you think you understand an area of wine, you realize that there is still so much more to know. You’re constantly learning and while this is hands down, one of the most difficult things about the industry, it is also one of the best things.”
We finally reached the temperature logger wedged onto a post in the middle of the vineyard. I had no clue how she remembered where she put the logger. Julie took out more gadgets and tools, and transferred all the information she needed onto her computer. I squirmed at the insects — including terrifying honeybees — all around us. I begged for her to hurry, as she took her sweet time making sure all the findings were perfectly recorded. The midges were not easing up.
“I don’t know how you do this,” I said. In my confusion, I also wondered if Julie too, was surprised when she found herself knee deep in mealybugs and grapes at the end of her career at Brock. When she took a glance back at high school, it was clear Julie also found this unique program to be a surprise to herself as well. Julie explained life prior to university.
“In high school I wanted to be a journalist more than anything… I was going to apply to Ryerson until probably a month before university applications were due. I don’t remember exactly what deterred me from journalism but suddenly I was more interested in the sciences… I thought hey, what better way to combine art with science than with wine? And that’s when I applied to Brock.”
There is many reasons why someone might choose Brock, but this specific program is definitely a catalyst for many.
“The OEVI program at Brock is the only undergraduate program in Canada dedicated to oenology and viticulture,” explained Steven Trussler, Senior Lab Instructor and OEVI Advisor. “Our students come from Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and around the world… Our students are diverse and bring a wide range of experience and strengths to our classes.”
This is one of many benefits of studying wine in the Niagara region.
“Niagara has what is called a cool climate… This means that for certain varieties of grapes/wines, Niagara is able to produce world class wines of quality that hotter climates are just not able to re-create,” Trussler said.
This goes hand in hand with the unique geography and escarpment, as well as the uniqueness of co-ops that are integrated into the program at Brock.
“Okay,” Julie said, finishing up, “let’s go.” She grabbed her bag and we began the lengthy and bug-infested trip back to the car.
“Please, hurry up!” I screamed. I had just to began to get antsy. In the midst of running through lively grape vines — what looked to me like nothing but long brown branches — I noticed Julie’s stained white tee and ruined Blundstones. Brown dirty blotches covered her short sleeves.
“I’ve probably ruined more clothes in the vineyard than the cellar,” Julie explained, “Wine stains are usually forever, but juice stains come out surprisingly easy. Sulfur on the other hand, which I used to spray in the vineyard, never washes out of your clothes.”
Aside from destroyed t-shirts, the wine industry proves to harbor extremely hard work. Julie explained that there is a high drop out rate in her program, due to course load and amount of chemistry and molecular genetics each student is mandated to learn.
“Biology, Chemistry, and Sensory Science form the backbone of the program,” Trussler said. “However, it is the diversity of study and the requirement for full synthesis of these fields of study that really sets this program apart. A student of Oenology and Viticulture must be conversant in organic and analytical chemistry, molecular and cellular biology, plant physiology and bacterial genetics… But that is not enough; art, geography, soil science, insectology, politics, law, history, geography, psychology, marketing, and others all play their part in creating the unique sensual and gustatory experiences that a wine consumers seeks.”
Clearly, the program is multidisciplinary, which proves to be a challenge to the students involved. To Julie, the hard work always pays off each time she remembers the amazing experiences that come along with this field of study.
“You’re part of a super small, tightly knit group of people,” Julie said, “I think there were maybe four of us in my graduating year and only two of us at my actual convocation in June. Because there are not many of you, you end up spending all your time with these people. You have all your classes together, you’re always lab partners, you study together, eat together, fail together, succeed together and as a result you end up forming some pretty amazing friendships.”
One of those unbreakable friendships, sealed with a wooden cork, is Julie’s friendship with Vanessa Recoskie. Vanessa, or as Julie calls her Banessa, has also graduated Spring 2015 with the same credentials — an Honours BSc (Bachelor of Science) in Oenology and Viticulture.
Vanessa, along with Julie, enjoys being a Oenology and Viticulture student in the Niagara region.
“Each property is unique with different land forms, so I always like to look at the surroundings,” Vanessa explained. “Some sites are literally on the edge of lake Ontario, some are on flat land surrounded by tree lines, others seem to be beside orchards with sloping hills. It can be beautiful and helpful to understand the site-whether there is higher disease pressure or good air flow, temperature differences and that kind of thing.”
Over the course of obtaining their degrees at Brock, Julie and Vanessa have made two clear, mutual agreements. One agreement is the manual labour involved in the degree that no one would likely suspect.
“Its agriculture,” Vanessa said, “It’s farming and a lot of labour. Those in the industry or those who have had a chance to see it closer may understand… For most [who] purchase wines in store and enjoy it at home may forget that it is a time consuming and physically demanding job. To start a winery you need a lot of access to equipment and money… It can take a long time before any profits are actually made… Its not all romance and easy days of work.”
Julie has also seen the face on this manual labour first hand. She explained that the industry is “unforgiving on your body.” Despite this, the two seem to understand the value of hard work.
When does everything seem completely and utterly worth it? The bouquet or aroma of freshly picked grapes? The midst of a successful vintage? As Vanessa said, it is “tasting the final product… finishing a long day and feeling proud of what you accomplished.”
The second agreement among the two women: lots of stained clothes. Vanessa explained the effects on harvesting and the vineyards on her wardrobe. The wine industry has destroyed “way too many” of her clothes, leaving her not only with a degree, but another, also sophisticated title to claim.
“Oxy-clean has helped with some of them,” Vanessa joked, “I should be a spokesperson for them.”
The two graduates may be on different roads, and maybe even different career paths, but they are never very far from each other. Both Vanessa and Julie are both heading to the other side of the world within the next month; far away from the Niagara and far away from Brock. This traveling opportunity is not uncommon for Oenology and Viticulture graduates, as wine is needed everywhere… obviously.
“I will be leaving for Australia in the coming weeks,” explained Vanessa. “I will be working for Jim Barry Wines in the Clare Valley and expect to be there for at least three months. After that it is a toss up — I could be anywhere.”
“I’m going to be headed to Tasmania in February for Vintage 2016,” said Julie, “I’ll be working at a winery called Moorilla. It’s a pretty small winery with a small staff, so I’ll be able to get involved in a variety of roles which I’m really excited about.”
Many of Brock’s oenology graduates have migrated to the Southern Hemisphere for work, so both Julie and Vanessa will be able to experience the close-knit community they did during their undergraduate, except in a whole other continent, a whole other set of grapes, and a whole other wine crew. Trussler explained that many students from Brock are not limited to this specific career path.
“Because the program is so diverse,” he said, “our graduates have the opportunity to work in many different industries such as Food Science, Sensory Science, Biotechnology and Horticulture. Of course, graduates are also uniquely qualified to work, research or educate in the fields of Oenology — the study of wine, and Viticulture — the study of grapes and grape growing.”
“It’s easy to find a seasonal position during harvest, but most of us are looking for something more than just a seasonal job,” explained Julie. Perhaps after her Australian harvest, she intends to find a more stable and full-time position in the local Niagara region, as the region holds an endless of amount of advantages for their Oenology students such as wonderful icewine, and countless wineries to choose from.
“I haven’t decided where I want to go with wine yet,” Julie explained. “I’m really enjoying working in production, so at the moment my end goal is becoming a winemaker… Before I can ultimately rule out other potential jobs, I need to experience some more positions.”
The lives of those intrinsically involved in the wine industry are not just sommeliers and those with fancy Chateaus in Burgundy. The wine industry exists in our own backyards. Those in the industry have lives that are incredibly more complex than an outsider might imagine — full of yeast, stained clothes, near-death tic run-ins, and 16 hour work days. Their lives are full of triumphs, trials, a vast knowledge of many different fields of study, and an unfathomable amount of passion.
I dove quickly into the car, and heard Julie still steps behind me. I flicked the midges off my hat and cursed my sister for dragging me out to the vineyard. As she laughed, numb to the buzz above me, she got into the car. Julie took the bottom of her dingy, white stained tee and wiped a drip of sweat coming from her warm forehead beneath her hat. The sun searched for clouds to hide behind, lost in the bright afternoon. “Ready?” she laughed. She started the car, and we headed down the long, bumpy dirt road on our way to the next vineyard.