Friday, November 24, 2017

Karl Kaiser 1941-2017

Photo: Karl Kaiser (courtesy Brock University)

Karl Kaiser, the man who made the Icewine that put Canada on the world wine map, passed away on November 22 at the age of 76.

Karl was a co-founder in 1974 of Inniskillin Winery with partner Donald Ziraldo. He was one of a handful of Ontario winemakers to begin making Icewine in 1983. Inniskillin stunned the wine world with a 1989 Icewine that won the top award at VinExpo in 1991. Within a few years, Canadian Icewines were famous around the world, giving a credibility to Canadian wines that was previously lacking.

“Karl was a true pioneer for the Canadian industry,” said Donald Triggs, the former chief executive of Vincor International (now Arterra Wines Canada), which subsequently acquired Inniskillin.  “He gave the industry so many firsts and always in such a generous, kind and gracious way.”  

I recounted Karl’s history in my 2001 book, Icewine: The Complete Story. The book is out of print but Karl’s story deserves to be repeated.

Born in Austria in 1941, Kaiser intended to be a teacher. He experienced vineyard work while in the novitiate of a Cistercian monastery there and later, while helping in a vineyard owned by the grandfather of his future wife.
He emigrated to Canada in 1969, planning to teach science after earning a chemistry degree and doing post-graduate work in microbiology. It was a choice of studies that equipped him well when his career switched to winemaking.

Kaiser arrived in Canada with a European wine palate and, dismayed at the sweet, foxy Canadian table wines, he planted a small home vineyard.   While buying vines in 1971 at a nursery run by the Ziraldo family, Kaiser loudly disparaged Ontario wine as unpalatable.

The combative Donald Ziraldo, a University of Guelph agriculture graduate seven years younger than Kaiser, loyally defended domestic wines. Kaiser made his point by returning with a well-made bottle of his home-vintaged Chelois rosé.  Ziraldo conceded that better wines could be made in Ontario and proposed that he and Kaiser should make them. The cottage winery they opened in 1975 was the first winery licensed in Ontario in nearly fifty years. Its success inspired a wave of estate producers in all Canadian wine regions and the quality of Canadian wine began improving.

In the 1970s, the avuncular Kaiser was one of the best-trained professionals among the German-speaking winemakers in Ontario. The other transplanted winegrowers from Austria and Germany gathered often at his well-equipped Inniskillin laboratory to share ideas and ambitions.

 In the summer of 1983, over several bottles of wine uncorked by the ever-hospitable Kaiser, the conversation turned to icewine. Kaiser and Ewald Reif, a German-born grower who owned a vineyard adjacent to Inniskillin, agreed to set aside vines for icewine. So did the Austrian winemakers then working at the nearby Hillebrand Estate winery and at the Pelee Island winery in southwestern Ontario. Only Pelee Island and Hillebrand were able to save some grapes from the birds to make small icewine vintages in 1983. All deployed nets the following year. 

Kaiser, who made about 900 bottles (375 ml. half bottles) in 1984, ultimately outdistanced his friends. By the vintage of 1998, he made or supervised the production of about 360,000 half bottles of icewine, undoubtedly a global record for any single winemaker.

Kaiser’s seminal contribution has not been the volume he has made but the quality. His 1984 icewine -- the label reads “EISWEIN Vidal (ICE WINE)”  and it retailed for $18.50 when released on December 1, 1985 -- was the only Canadian wine to win a gold medal at the 1986 InterVin International competition in Toronto.  The   Grand Prix in Bordeaux five years later, the first truly significant international medal won by any Canadian winery, firmly established Inniskillin’s reputation.

Kaiser used the French hybrid, Vidal, for icewine largely because it was grown in Inniskillin’s Brae Burn vineyard adjacent to the winery. “It wasn’t totally a coincidence,” he adds, “because I considered the Vidal would have the right properties. It is fruity. It has a tough skins and hangs on well to the vines. It has relatively decent acidity.”

 He considered several other varieties, including Seyval Blanc, which also were grown nearby, but none offered Vidal’s perfect package.  Over time, Kaiser has refined his view of what the ideal icewine grape must possess. “It has to be aromatic because a sweet wine with no aromatic overtones is plain sugar water,” he says. “It has to be late ripening. It has to have relatively high acidity and it has to have physiological properties to be durable against disease.” Besides Riesling and Vidal among the white varieties, Kaiser also has embraced Chenin Blanc, a fruity, aromatic variety “with the skin and stem of a tank.”

When Inniskillin established a second Canadian winery in the Okanagan Valley in 1994, Kaiser obtained Chenin Blanc for the 1994 and 1995 vintages for icewine. The variety was planted in Niagara and in 1998 Kaiser made a Chenin Blanc icewine there as well.  

At first, Kaiser took advantage of the frigid Canadian winters to make spectacularly big wines. His 1986 Vidal icewine was made from grapes that were deeply frozen to -17ºC when pressed and the juice was 55º Brix, a honey-like sweetness. Kaiser concluded that the practical limit is -14ºC; below that, the berries are so solidly frozen that the juice yield is minimal and the excessively sweet must is almost impossible to ferment.

In the bitterly cold vintage of December, 1996 the grapes again were picked at -17ºC and Kaiser broke two presses at Inniskillin in a near-futile effort to extract juice. “We had to wait until it was minus fourteen before we saw juice coming from the press,” he says. He now prefers a picking temperature of about -11ºC because it yields juice with 42º to 45º Brix.

The longevity of his Vidal icewines has delighted him. The 1986 “is one of the ones that is holding up amazingly,” Kaiser said in 1999. “There is almost no sign of oxidation. I don’t know how long Vidal lives. Our 1984 is still clean as a whistle.”

While the homespun Kaiser honed the technique of making icewine, it was his partner, Donald Ziraldo, who sold them. Ziraldo, who has received the Order of Canada, one of his nation’s highest awards for achievement, made his first trip to Vinexpo in 1989. This Bordeaux exposition properly known as Le Salon Mondial du Vin et Des Spiriteux, has become the most important of the international wine fairs. In Ziraldo’s luggage were samples of Inniskillin’s 1987 Vidal icewine, another powerhouse almost as concentrated as the previous vintage.

“We didn’t have our own booth and there was no other Canadian winery there,” Kaiser recalls. But Ziraldo, with his easy talent for mixing with the rich and famous, found influential people to taste the icewine, including an individual who identified himself as a personal friend of Jean Vidal, the breeder of the grape. “He said, when he sat down and tasted the icewine, that he would rate the wine among the five best sweet wines in the world,” Kaiser recounts. This extravagant compliment spurred Ziraldo  to enter an icewine at the 1991 Vinexpo.

At Kaiser’s suggestion, Ziraldo took the 1989 Vidal. It was not nearly as voluptuously sweet as the previous vintages, with only about 160 grams of unfermented sugar, but with a hint of botrytis, it possessed more finesse and complexity. “It is very unusual for Vidal to get botrytis because it has a tough skin,” Kaiser says. “But we had this warm Indian summer, with fog in the morning.” This was ideal for the development of noble rot and the Vidal grapes had a ten to fifteen per cent infection.

Kaiser had been pleased with that wine from the beginning and believed it was Inniskillin’s best shot at winning a medal. As it happened, Kaiser, ever the scientist, went instead to a technical conference in Seattle rather than Vinexpo, sending his daughter Andrea to Bordeaux with the Inniskillin delegation. She called from France with the stunning news that Inniskillin had won not only one of just seventeen gold medals but what she termed “the big medal.” Her mother, Silvia, thought it was more like “the Academy award.” The publicity sent Inniskillin’s icewine sales rocketing.

“We were incrementally increasing our production of icewine every year,” Kaiser says. He continued to be conservative in quantity, however, until the 1995 vintage after Inniskillin had been acquired by Vincor International Ltd.,  Canada’s largest wine group. “It became a corporate objective to make a lot of icewine,” he says.

That year, Kaiser made about five thousand cases or 60,000 half bottles of icewine. Production rose to sixteen thousand cases in 1996, then declined to four thousand in 1997 when the harvest was delayed by warm weather until January 1998 and most of the grapes were lost. But 1998, with favorable harvest conditions in both Ontario and British Columbia,  he was responsible for making an astounding thirty thousand cases for Inniskillin or for Vincor under the Jackson-Triggs label.

“We have more icewine under this roof than all of Germany makes together,” Kaiser asserted after that vintage. [When Kaiser retired] Vincor delegated its huge icewine production to the team of winemakers employed at half dozen Canadian wineries the company owns, each with its own icewine program.

Karl’s achievements extended far beyond Icewine, as was recounted this week by Brock University, Canada’s leading winemaking school. He was a 1974 graduate of that university.

 Here  are excerpts from Brock’s tribute:

Kaiser’s impact on the Niagara and Canadian wine industry is unmatched, and it was through his guidance and drive that Brock created the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) and the Oenology and Viticulture (OEVI) undergraduate program in the 1990s, said CCOVI Director Debbie Inglis.

“Karl truly believed that a successful wine region needed a research institute to support it,” said Inglis. “And he was passionate about passing his knowledge on to the next generation.”

Kaiser’s love of wine research and his connection to Brock, where he graduated from in 1974, was something he took pride in.

“I always felt very honoured by being a part of Brock’s CCOVI as an affiliate,” Kaiser wrote in his final email to CCOVI Communications Specialist Sarah Moore recently. “It always has been great enjoyment being part of CCOVI in this way.”

Born in Austria in 1941, Kaiser immigrated to Canada in 1969 with his wife Silvia. After graduating from Brock’s chemistry program in 1974, Kaiser was experimenting with winemaking, which led to a connection with Donald Ziraldo, a greenhouse owner who was providing Kaiser with grapes for his hobby.

“Receiving the first Ontario winery licence since 1920, Kaiser and Ziraldo launched Inniskillin Winery in 1975, and began making wines that would ultimately put Canada on the world map for the industry. The difference between what Inniskillin was making and what was being produced in Ontario was the use of Vitis vinifera wine grapes rather than lower quality juice grapes.
“It was a huge change for what was known in the industry at the time. But it was through their initiatives that the industry started to transform and we gained notoriety and respect,” Inglis said.

The winemaker was given the Order of Ontario in 1993, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Brock in 1994, and was the recipient of Brock’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005 and the Faculty of Math and Science Distinguished Alumni Award in 2009. Kaiser was also honoured with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s 50th Anniversary Golden Jubilee Award and the Ontario Wine Society Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

“He was never comfortable being in the limelight and taking acknowledgement for all that he achieved and what he put forward,” said Inglis. “He was a very understated individual.”

It was Kaiser’s desire for wine research and knowledge that, together with other industry pioneers, led to the development of CCOVI in 1996. He was part of the industry group that developed the concept for the institute that year, as well as the OEVI undergrad program that followed in 1997.

Kaiser developed the OEVI wine chemistry course and was its first instructor in 1998. He became a CCOVI Professional Affiliate and returned on a regular basis to give lectures and seminars, the videos of which are still among the program’s most downloaded.


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