Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Adolf Kruger remembered


Photo: Wild Goose founder Adolf Kruger

In another sad week in British Columbia’s wine country, Wild Goose Vineyards and Winery announced the death on November 20, 2016, of its founder, Adolf Kruger.
He was one of the most influential pioneers of the British Columbia wine industry, which now has more than 300 wineries. Wild Goose was just the 18th winery when it was licensed in 1990. A government official said he would be lucky to sell 2,000 bottles a year. Wild Goose now makes and sells about 11,000 cases a year. The winery has won more Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in Wine than any other Okanagan winery.
Adolf has been honoured by the industry with, among other accolades, the Founder’s Award in 2006. A modest man (with no reason to be modest), Adolf was literally speechless when the award was presented.
I got to know him during numerous interviews and tastings at the winery. In latter years, that always involved a lunch with Adolf and his two sons in the kitchen of the family home. As his wife, Susanna, laid out cold cuts and freshly-baked buns, the Kruger men matched each other with highly entertaining wine industry commentary.
The lunches ended after Susanna, who had as sharp a wit as her men, died in 2014. Those who came to know Susanna and Adolf experienced a very special couple. I expect the winery will be jammed on the afternoon of December 3 for an open house to remember Adolf.

Here is a long except from my 1994 book, The Wineries of British Columbia. The profile includes much detail on Adolf and his family. Hagen Kruger is now the winemaker, as is son, Nik. Roland handles wine sales.

Adolf Kruger was born in 1931 in Kehrberg, a German village southwest of Berlin; his wife, Susanna, is from a German-speaking enclave in Rumania. A compact but muscular man, Adolf was raised on a farm far distant from wine country. "It was strictly potatoes, asparagus and rye," he says.

In 1949 the entire Kruger family fled the communist regime of East Germany and spent a year as refugees in West Germany. Adolf and a brother came to Canada to work on a wheat farm near Winnipeg for the 1951 harvest. Once the harvest was completed, they headed for the city. It was here that Adolf completed the high school he had missed in Germany and, after spending two years in university, became an electrical designer. Susanna had emigrated to Winnipeg independently in 1951, where she worked as a seamstress and met Adolf.

In his spare time, Adolf began designing yachts, a passion that led the Krugers to move to Vancouver in 1964. He designed boats for others and eventually built his own twenty-four-foot sailboat, later sold because Susanna proved to be, in Adolf's phrase, "a whiteknuckle sailor." In Vancouver Adolf worked for Wright Engineers Ltd. an engineering consulting firm, in a drafting design job that involved several exotic overseas assignments, including more than a year in Syria and Iran on a pipeline construction project. When the engineering firm reduced staff during the 1982 business recession, Kruger was loaned to another consulting firm. Apprehensive about this temporary arrangement, he began looking for a career change.

He found it that fall while visiting a friend, grape grower Nick Brodersen, who has a vineyard near Kaleden. In February 1983 Adolf bought his own property south of Okanagan Falls. "It was a terrible place, nothing but sagebrush and cut-down trees and an old gravel pit," he says. "Even though it was a terrible piece of land, the price was right." As he feared, his engineering design job was eliminated in January 1984. By March the Krugers were pounding in the posts to support the vines they began planting that spring.

Wild Goose has been a family business from the start because Adolf invited his sons, Hagen and Roland, to join him as partners. Hagen, born in 1960, had become a draughtsman (and still works in that trade), while Roland, born in 1964, worked as an electronics technician until he joined his father full-time at the winery. One result of the partnership is that the Wild Goose wine shop is always manned by some member of the family, usually either Susanna or Hagen's wife, Kerry. "People really enjoy going into farm wineries and being able to talk to the owners," Roland believes.

One day after closing the purchase, Adolf Kruger went to take a closer look at the barren tract on which he was hanging his future. Noticing a path, he followed it to a small clearing, completely surprising a large flock of geese feeding there. "They literally exploded, frantically trying to get out of this clearing," Kruger recalls. He ducked and shielded his head against panicking, low-flying geese. "It struck me as an omen," says Kruger, an avid and experienced fowl hunter. He decided: "If I ever get a vineyard here, I'll call it Wild Goose." He thinks that the name gets across the message that he makes Canadian wines. Adolf Kruger is a patient and pleasant man, but he bristles when someone suggests he is making wines on a German model.
When the Krugers canvassed the wineries on what to plant, they were routinely told to plant hybrids. "A lot of people were mentioning Foch and Chelois," Roland recalls. "But being originally from Europe, he had ideas of putting in European varieties."
Adolf knew which grapes make the best wines, for he had been a keen amateur vintner in Vancouver, one of the most serious of the winemakers in his hobby circle. They were all using vinifera grapes from California Kruger's favourite reds were made by blending equal quantities of Zinfandel and Alicante — and he decided his ten-acre vineyard would be planted entirely to vinifera. With white wines then in vogue, he planted only white varieties, Gewürztraminer and Johannisberg Riesling, and, not then planning his own winery, contracted the grapes to Mission Hill winery. The Krugers believed that their soil, with its rocks, clay and sand on a southern exposure, was particularly good for Riesling.
The natural progression from grape growing is to winemaking, Roland observes. The idea had been planted during a family vacation to Washington's Yakima Valley, which is dotted with small family-owned wineries. Something else also nudged the Krugers: the rising concern among the growers that the coming free trade era would cripple commercial wineries in British Columbia, who would then try to survive by offering low prices for grapes.

"The last thing we wanted," Roland says, "was to be stuck with ten acres of grapes and to be offered $200 to $500 a ton. So we independently began lobbying the government, writing letters, talking to individuals, and this went on for two or three years." Eventually, they learned that two other small growers were doing the same thing. It was not until a 1988 meeting in Penticton with government bureaucrats that the Krugers actually met Günther Lang and Vera Klokocka, who had also been pestering the politicians for licences.

One of the government officials, fed up with being pressured, asked the three growers just what they wanted. Backed by his colleagues, Adolf Kruger spent half an hour sketching out what became the parameters for farmgate wineries. 

Shortly thereafter, Premier Bill Vander Zalm took a personal interest and, as Roland says, "it wasn't too long after that that we had the guidelines for small wineries." Adolf Kruger prefers to give the credit to a presentation made to Vander Zalm by two other growers, Terry Wells and Alan Brock. He is convinced that if Vander Zalm had not gone to bat personally for the farmgate winery concept, it might never have emerged from the bureaucracy.

With his memory for anecdotes, Roland recalls vividly the date when the Krugers received the coveted licence: June 11, 1990. It was a nasty, cold day, pelting with rain — and a customer showed up at the door to buy wine. "He came in and loved the wines," Roland recalls. So did subsequent customers. "We are a bit stunned by our success — it exceeded our expectations," Adolf says.

However, that understates how tough it was at first. There was a concern among consumers and restaurateurs that the quality of farmgate wines would seldom be better than that of homemade wines, especially since several estate wineries earlier had come to market initially with disappointing products. 

The Krugers, like the other farm wineries, had to hand-sell wines, persuading buyers one at a time. With no wines listed in the liquor stores, the personable and easy-going Roland Kruger took to the road, selling restaurants and convincing private stores to carry Wild Goose wines. "In the Vancouver area, I set up a network of beer and wine stores to handle our products," he says. "It was a selling job . . . but now they help us push our products."

The various impractical regulations imposed on farmgate wineries have not made his job any easier. For example, farmgate wineries are not supposed to warehouse their wines off the winery premise itself and they must be paid immediately for the wines they deliver.

The Krugers have invested carefully and modestly in equipment, buying it — Roland calls it scrounging — around British Columbia, from the Pacific Northwest and from Germany. The winery's horizontal basket press was designed and built by Adolf. Recently, the Krugers have begun to invest in American and French oak barrels for aging their reds, Adolf being a particular fan of big reds. "I don't care for oaked whites," he says. "I like a rather fresh or fruity white wine. But I do prefer to age reds in oak." In 1994, when the winery was enlarged and a spacious tasting room added, Wild Goose released its first Pinot noir and made its first Merlot.

"Our goal in the first couple of years was to produce clean wines, wines with no faults," Roland says modestly.

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