Guelph Grads on the Go – Uncorking a Career in the Wine Industry

Winemaker and U of G grad Katie Dickieson helps lead Peller Estates Winery to an award-winning year

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University of Guelph graduate Katie Dickieson is a winemaker at Peller Estates Winery.

Katie Dickieson. Photo: Joseph Chan/ARTiculation Group.

To winemaker Katie Dickieson, a top-notch wine should not only taste good, but it should tell a story.

“I want the wine to tell you a story about where it came from,” she says. “What kind of soil did it grow in, was the weather hot or wet, and was it picked early or late? It should be complex: you should get hints about what you will taste when you smell it and then the flavours should be layered and interesting. And of course it has to taste great.”

Dickieson, B.Sc. ’05, has been the winemaker at Peller Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake since 2012. Just like other agricultural jobs, her work changes according to the season and is different every day.

In the spring, she manages the crop and the vineyard. “It’s all about the quality of the fruit,” she says. Harvesting grapes can start in late August or September, but not until Dickieson has tasted and analyzed the grapes to determine their readiness. Different varietals ripen at different times, so the busy harvest season generally stretches into November. And then, of course, there’s icewine; those grapes are usually harvested in January or February, if the weather cooperates.

“You have to respect the fruit and plan carefully – you only get one chance to get the best possible wine from each crop,” she says. “Once the grapes are picked, I monitor the processing and fermentation and choosing the right barrels.” As this year’s wines are “put to bed,” Dickieson begins tasting and bottling wines from the previous year.

Compared to the rest of the world, Niagara’s wine industry is in its infancy, says Dickieson. “We are still learning about our soil and our climate, so every year is some level of experiment,” she says.

Dickieson spends much of her day tasting grapes, juice and wines in various stages of production and aging. “My sensory strength is my nose,” she says. “The aromas of wine are very telling.”

Growing up on a farm, Dickieson knew early on that she wanted to work in agriculture in some way and earned a B.Sc. in food science at U of G to help her towards that goal.

After working for a year in the food industry, Dickieson was hired by Peller Estates as an assistant winemaker. In the wine industry, it is common to travel and work in different places, and she soon headed south to spend four months in New Zealand during its wine harvest. On her return, Dickieson moved to the Okanagan region of British Columbia and spent two years working for Howard Soon, a pioneer in the province’s wine field and, in her words, “a great mentor.” She then spent another year in New Zealand, working first at the Omihi Hills winery and later at the Man o’ War winery on Waiheke Island before spending six months in France’s Rhone Valley.

Dickieson loves not only the day-to-day variety of her job, but also that she’s never tied down to her desk – she frequently spends time outdoors in the vineyards or working in the wine cellars. Her efforts helped Peller Estates win the title of 2014 Canadian Winery of the Year by WineAlign, an internationally-judged competition that evaluates a variety of wines produced by each winery.

“It’s an awesome job,” she says of her work. “Because it is such a young industry in Canada, there is limitless potential. We are making some really wonderful table wines and we keep getting better at it. And our Niagara icewine is really special and unique.”