Written and Photographed by Sandra Ozkur

Year after year, millions of visitors come to Niagara wine country to take part in the many events and programs that are hosted by the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Niagara wine industry has so much to offer that guests return regularly to be part of the action. Every visit yields a new discovery: wine festivals, galas, tasting events, new-vintage parties, wine tasting programs, vineyard tours, food and wine celebrations, winemaker’s dinners, concerts, Icewine festivities, celebrity luncheons, wine shows, competitions, seminars, and the list goes on and on! When the first estate winery opened its doors over thirty years ago, none of this existed. It was just a dream in the minds of two of the first wine producers in the region.

In 1974, co-founders Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser planted the first vinifera grapes in Niagara to make premium wines. And the next year Inniskillin Estate Winery was granted the first winery license in Ontario since prohibition. The partners had a vision of Niagara-on-the-Lake not merely as a wine producing area, but also as a premier wine and culinary destination. Taking their cue from the New World wine regions of California and Australia, Ziraldo and Kaiser’s goal was to produce premium wine from premium grapes grown in the Niagara Peninsula.

But one person was there at the beginning who shared Ziraldo’s and Kaiser’s dream. Deborah Pratt, Public Relations Manager for Inniskillin, has been a driving force in the development and promotion of the Niagara wine industry since its inception. She has been with Inniskillin every step of the way from the moment when Inniskillin first opened its doors to the public. Debi remembers, “We started in a packing shed at Ziraldo Nurseries, the family business that Donald was running at that time. The original winery site was just a few kilometers south of the existing winery. The winemaking partner, Karl Kaiser, originally from Austria, had produced some really great wines from local hybrid grapes in the early 70’s and together they saw a future in creating premium wines. Donald, as an entrepreneur, was certain that if he could convince some top restaurants in Toronto to serve Inniskillin’s wines, the LCBO would take notice.”

With a stroke of luck, and some great press coverage, Inniskillin made its way into Ontario’s liquor stores. This novel upstart winery was doing something that had never been done before—growing vitis Vinifera grapes in the Canadian climate and producing very palatable wines. As a result of the media coverage, Toronto wine-enthusiasts became curious to find out for themselves what all the fuss was about and made trips to beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake to taste Inniskillin’s wines. This is where Debi, a professional teacher, began to make her mark. As Donald’s friend, she often helped at the winery on weekends and holidays when she wasn’t teaching school. She worked with the customers, serving wine and answering questions and basically helping with anything that needed to be done.

She quickly realized that there was a growing wine culture in Canada, and people were curious to learn more about wine. Most Canadians were raised on sweet bubbly wines so drinking drier European-style wines was a new experience for the majority of people. Debi quickly understood that in order for Inniskillin winery to succeed, the most important thing they needed to do was educate their customers. As an educator herself, she knew that tactile learning was the most effective way of retaining knowledge. She instituted the practice of giving hands-on interactive, demonstrations to make wine tasting a personal experience.

In 1978, the partners moved to the current location, the Brae Burn Estate, where they built a new winery and later turning the historic barn on the property to a wine boutique and visitor area. Debi enjoyed being part of this new business and was as enthusiastic about wine as the customers were. “I was also learning a lot from Donald and Karl and was eager to share my knowledge with others. It was all very new and exciting to me. I enjoyed creating a comfort zone for my customers who were as curious about wine and wine making as I was. I began by teaching the reason why we could grow good quality cool climate grape varieties in Niagara and then comparing the differences in the taste profiles of the different hybrid and European Vinifera grapes.” Here, Debi’s calling as a teacher came to the fore. “When sampling wines with the customers, I always used a point of reference— oaked vs. un-oaked wines, old vintages vs. younger ones, and New World vs. Old World flavours. I taught them how to identify the ‘notes’ in the wine by sniffing and sipping and then explained the basics of wine making for a greater appreciation of the product,” she explains. “Listening to their comments and points of reference led to an ease of conversation.” Debi discovered that a better understanding of the product translated into more wine sales! People would return to learn more and became regular customers.

Debi soon gave up teaching to manage the retail store, where she put her talents to work in creating tasting programs, winery tours and interactive group experiences for visitors. As more wineries began opening up in the area, Debi encouraged the new wineries to join together to share ideas and develop co-cooperative programs to promote all the wineries and the Group of Seven Wineries was formed in Niagara- on- the-Lake. She knew that the key to the success of a wine industry in Niagara would be in marketing the area as a whole. Debi envisioned Niagara as a world class wine and culinary destination. Soon the group of wineries began meeting on a regular basis to organize tasting and touring programs as well as special events that highlighted each winery’s unique offerings. This cross-promotion ensured that the wine consumer left with an intimate experience of Niagara and took home a lot of knowledge and a lot of wine to share with friends!

Debi chaired the marketing committee for 12 years, establishing strategies, branding, and programing that are still in place today but have been very successfully expanded upon. Over the years the marketing group became known as the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and has grown to include 27 wineries that continue to build programing to enhance customer experience. Debi emphasizes, “We want to give people a reason to visit wine country year round; we want to keep improving while remaining focused on quality and customer service.” Niagara-on-the-Lake has definitely become a four-season wine destination with events on the calendar throughout the year.

The Founders of Innisillin Niagara Estate Winery have come to be regarded as pioneers in the wine industry, and with them Debi Pratt must be given credit for her contribution to the growth of wine tourism in Ontario. Whether she is entertaining royalty, meeting with dignitaries, being interviewed on national television, or talking to the farmer next door, she is always hospitable and sincere. Her contribution in the area of marketing and public relations has put a pretty face on the wine industry, giving it the charm and personality that make all visitors feel at home in Niagara.

Debi Pratt’s intelligence, skill and devotion to Inniskillin and to the Niagara community have earned her much respect. Debi has served on numerous committees, charities and boards over the years. She has received many prestigious awards for her tireless dedication to her work and community. Most recently, she was the recipient of the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Tourism Industry and was named 2013 Business Citizen of the Year by RBC at the annual Niagara Wine Festival.

Yes, a lifetime of achievement is what Debi can be very proud of. So it must be with some wistfulness that after 38 years, this great ambassador of Niagara has announced her retirement. “My heart will always belong to Niagara, and I will continue to be involved in the Niagara wine industry in one way or another—but, now it will be on my time,” she says with a smile! The community wishes her well and we hope that we will continue to encounter Debi’s charming presence in around Niagara-on-the-Lake.