Viticulture & Enology Education? Consider Looking Northward


Viticulture is dynamic, scientific and, with innovation advancing and our environment continually evolving, it can be a challenge to keep on top of it all. Even the most seasoned winemakers and grape growers could benefit from updating or fine-tuning their knowledge. Ensuring the entire vineyard team possesses the most up-to-date skills and education to grow the finest grapes and produce premium wine is never a bad idea.

People may seek out viticulture or enology education programs to optimize their knowledge and skills, improve those of their employees, or perhaps even satisfy a career shift into the wine industry. Many programs exist, varying in depth, length and content, and provide education on specific aspects of viticulture, including combining viticulture with business management and enology.

Brock University

When starting to search out the programs that best fit your needs, consider looking northward. Canada’s most significant wine regions, Niagara, Ontario and the Okanagan in British Columbia offer viticulture and enology programs carefully designed to meet the varying needs of today’s global grape growing and winemaking industries. Alumni from these programs have gone to make waves on the international front.

Brock University (brocku.ca) in Ontario offers an Oenology (Canadian for ‘Enology’) and Viticulture degree, which focuses on the science of winemaking and grape growing. The course begins with a comprehensive education encompassing sensory science, biochemistry, biotechnology, chemistry, microbiology, genetics, molecular biology, plant physiology and cell biology. The education is enhanced by an opportunity to apply what is learned in lecture halls to hands-on winemaking labs and viticulture field-work. This includes industry experience via the co-op program, spending at least one work term in a vineyard setting with another at a winery during harvest time. Extracurricular lectures and events organized by Brock’s internationally renowned Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute connect students with leading researchers in the field.

The Viticulture Technician Diploma at Brock is designed to provide hands-on, theoretical and practical knowledge to the vineyard management team, focusing on planning, developing, planting and maintaining a vineyard for the production of quality wine. Steven Trussler, OEVI Senior Lab Instructor, told The Grapevine Magazine, “The diploma program is structured around the viticulture growing season, providing opportunities to develop and apply skills leading to sustainable practices within commercial vineyards.” Trussler adds, “An exciting aspect of working in a vineyard is that nothing is routine, as nature and the vines exert their influence, creating an ever-changing environment. Students will be exposed to this dynamic environment of viticulture, developing a range of skills and knowledge, including canopy management, pest control, pruning, training vines, sensory evaluation, occupational health and safety, and operating equipment. An integral aspect of the diploma is a co-op term to ensure students have a comprehensive understanding of the production practices and processes that enable employment within the industry.”

Trussler explained the distinction that exists between the undergraduate program at Brock, Oenology and Viticulture (OEVI) and the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), “The OEVI program is housed in the Department of Biology at Brock University. Students study core courses of biology and chemistry with the other BSc students and supplement this education with specialized courses in Oenology and Viticulture. CCOVI is a research institute at Brock dedicated to supporting the Canadian and international cool climate grape and wine industries through research, outreach and continuing education. CCOVI doesn’t have any students per se; however the students in our undergraduate program are able to use the facilities of the research institute, and the researchers at CCOVI are appointed to teach in the Department of Biology. This is important because students are trained in grape growing, and winemaking principles that can be applied anywhere-there is no particular emphasis within the undergraduate program on cool climate. Having said that, because our undergraduates interact with world-renowned scientists working within the framework of cool climate oenology and viticulture, they have the opportunity to gain specialized knowledge as they participate in research and other learning activities associated with the institute.”

The Brock undergraduate program also includes 12 months of full-time, paid co-op experience, as well as a mandatory eight-month honors thesis wherein students work one-on-one with a CCOVI researcher to complete new research, write a thesis and defend their work in front of a committee. There is also a strong Masters and Ph.D. program. These students are part of the work of CCOVI and are dedicated to understanding and developing responses to the challenges and opportunities of cool climate grape growing and winemaking.

As Trussler said, the knowledge gained is applicable far beyond cooler climates, which is why students from around the world have enrolled in the program, including from France, Australia, Korea, Argentina, the US, and China. For the 2018 intake, there have already been applicants from France and Nigeria. “Our graduate students come from all over as well,” said Trussler. “Right now, we have a post-doc working with us from China via Australia, and grad students from Jamaica and Korea. Our staff Oenologist, Dr. Belinda Kemp, is a sparkling wine expert from the UK, who completed her Ph.D. in New Zealand. Dr. Gary Pickering, our sensory science researcher is from New Zealand and is cross-appointed to Charles Sturt University in Australia. We also host interns from around the world. Right now we have one from the University of Bordeaux and three from Dijon.” Among Brock’s notable and proud alumni are winemaker Conor van der Reest of Moorilla winery in Tasmania; and Elizabeth Grant Douglas, who has had enormous success in California and other U.S. West Coast states.

The impact of the program and its global reach are impressive, considering it began in 1996, with the first students graduating in 2000, and only about 100 BSc graduates so far.

Brock also offers a certificate program for students that have already completed an undergraduate degree in related fields (Chemistry, Biology, Food Science, etc.). Students come to Brock and complete, in a calendar year, all of the specialized oenology and viticulture courses of the undergraduate program and receive a Certificate in Grape and Wine Technology. It’s an intense program, not for the faint of heart, and many students elect to complete it part-time, but it can be a great way to pivot students’ careers by leveraging their experience in other fields and applying them specifically to the grape and wine industry.

The Future is Female

Another interesting factoid about the program at Brock-the majority of the enrollment is female, a trend which continues through the graduate student population and into the staff of CCOVI. Brock researcher Belinda Kemp has a winemaking passport that includes work on three continents. She recently featured in Vintages magazine as one of 16 women who have made an indelible mark as an industry innovator in the wine world. “The women on this list are a group of forward-thinking industry trailblazers,” said Kemp. “To be named alongside them is truly an honor.”

A Viticulture Diploma Program Meeting the Evolving Needs of the Industry

Turning to Western Canada, Okanagan College, at their campus in stunning Penticton, British Columbia, has taken a uniquely strategic and collaborative approach to developing their recently piloted Viticulture Diploma program. With campuses throughout the wine-industry-rich Okanagan Valley, Okanagan College (www.okanagan.bc.ca) has been actively working with wine and viticulture partners for decades. Eight years ago, as the Canadian wine industry was hitting a real boom and the wine was making more noticeable strides on the world stage, the BC wine industry recognized that a higher level of talent was needed in the vineyards. BC wine is a $2 billion industry, so it made sense for the provincial government and industry to support the initiative of developing a program curriculum that would lead to creating a highly educated and experienced viticulture workforce for the region and beyond.

In 2011, a comprehensive human resources review was conducted and released in 2012 as the BC Viticulture Industry Labour Market Information Research Report. It provided a framework to ensure BC grape growers have the skilled and trained employees required for its continued growth and success, and to ensure employees have compelling career pathways in the sector. The BC Viticulture Human Resource Strategy was then created to research and review options for a Viticulture Technician training program model. Jonathan Rouse, Associate Dean of the Okanagan School of Business Director of Food, Wine, and Tourism was integral in working with the British Columbia Wine Grape Council (BCWGC) in building the curriculum for Okanagan College that would meet the needs identified by the industry. The goals of the program were to attract and recruit the best people and share with them the many career pathways in the vineyard; educate them on growing the best grapes for the best wines; and develop an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable career and business.

The goal of the BC grape-growing industry was to train workers with appropriate practical experience and technological skills, as well as scientific, mathematical and human resource knowledge to meet the evolving needs of the viticulture sector. They recognized that the industry was not only increasing in size but that additional skill and knowledge challenges needed to be met with regards to viticulture-related technologies, environmental stewardship and workplace safety. These challenges required the ability to be able to analyze, synthesize and integrate knowledge to solve problems in the workplace.

Furthermore, professional aspects of a viticulture technician had to be emphasized and supported by increased skills and knowledge, as well as career paths and development opportunities, with possibilities to “ladder” into degree programs. To this end, the curriculum for the two-year applied academic Viticulture Technician Diploma at Okanagan College was born. As Rouse told The Grapevine Magazine, “This is the first time in Canada there has been such a focused viticulture program offered, which includes little oenology.”
The first intake of the program was in September 2017. The curriculum timeline is built around the cycle of the vineyards, with the first students now half-way through their two-year program. The college is also looking toward delivering the program to part-time students, particularly to those that may already possess some talent or experience in the vineyards but want to explore or build on different skill sets. Rouse said that these students are not seeking a diploma, but “they would have the opportunity to pick very specific courses, such as trellis or irrigation management, in order to fine-tune skills.” He adds, “smaller wineries are looking to cross-train some of their employees, while some of the larger wineries are looking for individuals with a very targeted skill set. The industry has been extremely encouraging, and we are finding that employers are providing support in the form of funding or time accommodation for their employees.”

The program focused highly on meeting the needs of the student and their transition to meeting the needs of the workplace. A vital part of this transition is the co-op portion of the curriculum. Students spend May to August (up to harvest/crush) with a vineyard, applying and fine-tuning their skills or specific interests and developing communication abilities for employment.

Rouse and his colleagues at Okanagan College are excited about the forward momentum of the program, the very positive feedback from the industry, and the success of the first students. They continue to make subtle adjustments to the program to optimize the student experience and be adaptable to an industry that demands it. They are looking forward to the next intake of students, projected for