Karl Kaiser, You Will Be Missed
The first wine I tasted when I arrived back in Canada in November 1976 – after a fifteen-year stay in London – was Inniskillin Vin Nouveau 1974.
I had been invited to dinner in Burlington by an old McGill friend, Stuart Smith, who, at the time, was the leader of the Ontario Liberal party.
As Stuart poured the bottle, he said, ‘This is the best wine made in Ontario.’ It was Maréchal Foch and the first commercialized vintage made by Karl Kaiser from grapes grown by his co-founder of Inniskillin, Donald Ziraldo.
How this odd couple – Karl Kaiser, the Austrian-born ex-seminarian and science-wonk who was once headed for the priesthood, and Donald Ziraldo, the young extrovert Italian-Canadian playboy and super salesman – ever got together to form Ontario’s seminal boutique winery is a story worthy of a Hollywood musical.
With the shared vision of making Ontario wine that could stand on the world stage, the two men successfully lobbied for the first Ontario winery license to be granted since Prohibition in 1929.
In ‘Vintage Canada’, first published in 1982, I wrote: ‘To Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser must go the credit for rejuvenating the Ontario wine industry at a time when it could have easily foundered in the swamp of labrusca. They received their boutique winery license – a new concept in 1975 when the industry was dominated by large commercial wineries ferociously competing with Baby Duck-style products and Liebfraumlich – and they determined to make only quality wines. For a decade it was an uphill battle but they have earned their place in the sun with a range of single vineyard Chardonnays, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Vidal Icewine. And along the way they have raised the profile of Ontario wines in Canada and around the world…Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal Icewine won a gold award in Vinexpo in 1991, the first such international accolade and one that has drawn global attention to Ontario as a wine region.’
Karl Kaiser perfected the technique for making Ontario Icewine and to him must go the credit for single-handedly establishing the international reputation for Canadian Icewine. In the minds of consumers as far-flung as London and Shanghai, Inniskillin has become synonymous with Canadian Icewine; although Karl’s first attempt to make this gift of winter in 1983 ended in disaster: birds devoured the entire unnetted crop overnight before the pickers could harvest the frozen grapes.
Karl would share his encyclopedic knowledge of winemaking with anyone who cared to ask – often at greater length than the enquirer had bargained for. Even I, as a wine writer who wanted to write an article on how to make a Vidal table wine, was lectured at length on the subject. And it wasn’t only the theory. Together with Toronto restaurateur Franco Prevedello in 1982, the four us went into the vineyard, picked the grapes, crushed them and fermented them. Then Karl finished the wine, bottled it and had it labeled. I wrote the article for my Toronto Star column and gave away the bottles to the first readers who wrote in. I have a single prized bottle left in my cellar that will never be opened. It’s well over the hill by now but a wonderful memory of the occasion and the man who made it possible.
Karl Kaiser passed away on November 22nd last year. He was seventy-six years old. At the celebration of his life sixteen days later – held at The Hare Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake – some 300 winemakers, industry members and friends turned up on a night cold enough to pick Icewine to pay tribute to his accomplishments. The evening was warmed by the memories of those who knew him well and the love of his colleagues in the room. He will be sorely missed.
Rest in peace, old friend.
Images provided by Brock University.