Ontario wine

At the Ontario Chamber of Commerce event, Brock President Gervan Fearon presents a Lifetime Achievement Award to Andrea Kaiser, as Board Chair Gary Comerford, left, and Don Ziraldo look on. Photo provided by Brock CCOVI

Canadian winery icons Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, who revolutionized an industry and then helped create Brock University’s renowned grape and wine research centre CCOVI, were honoured with the first Lifetime Achievement Award ever presented by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

The partners were feted as “the pioneers of Ontario’s wine renaissance” at a gala at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, where Ziraldo was joined by Andrea Kaiser, who accepted on behalf of her late father. The award was sponsored by Brock University.

In 1975, Ziraldo and Kaiser obtained a licence for a new winery they called Inniskillin. Ontario wines were typically sweet and syrupy, due to the region’s hardy labrusca vines that could survive Canadian winters. But Ziraldo and Kaiser believed European vitis vinifera vines could produce world-class wines and also cope with the local climate.

They soon began winning major international awards, including the Grand prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo in Bordeaux, France. Inniskillin went from cottage winery to global success, and the reputation of Canadian wines went viral.

Ontario wine

An undated photo of Karl Kaiser, left, and Don Ziraldo in a Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard.

Since then, Niagara has become carpeted with vineyards and known as “Napa North,” a destination for connoisseurs and wine tourists alike. When Inniskillin received its licence, the first to be issued in half a century, there were only six other wineries in Ontario. Today there are nearly 200, and grape and wine is a $9-billion national industry that contributes to thousands of jobs.

While sales flourished, however, the industry lacked the research support and regional science that is crucial to keeping an area’s vines healthy and its quality high.

By 1996, a group of winemakers, grape growers and Brock scientists met regularly to identify the needs of the rapidly expanding industry. The group included Bill Cade, then Brock’s Dean of Mathematics and Science, who brought in industry leaders like Ziraldo, Kaiser, Paul Bosc, John Howard and others.

Wine writer Linda Bramble recalled the energy: “I remember Donald (Ziraldo) repeating, ‘Every significant wine region in the world has a research institute associated with it. We need this, too!’ ”

At the Ontario Chamber of Commerce event, Aspen Ziraldo was excited about his dad’s latest award. Photo provided by Brock CCOVI

Before the year was out, Brock launched its Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), which has been a working partner of the industry ever since. Two years later, CCOVI would move into its new home, named Inniskillin Hall in honour of a generous gift from Ziraldo and Kaiser.

At the Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony, Ziraldo praised his longtime partner.

“Karl’s genius with Icewine created an opportunity to build a global luxury brand,” Ziraldo said. “I deeply appreciate the recognition by the Chamber, and encourage young vintners to continue our quest for greatness.”

Andrea Kaiser recounted how her father very nearly did not become a vintner. After emigrating from Austria in the late 1960s, he found his education credentials were not recognized in Canada. However, his plans to go back to school and become a teacher changed after a chance meeting with Ziraldo.

“But even in winemaking, he remained a teacher, always eager to share his winemaking techniques,” she said. “He was so honoured to be invited back to Brock to teach at CCOVI as it combined his two passions in life, wine and learning.”

Brock President Fearon said the vision and innovation shown by Ziraldo and Kaiser will continue to inspire generations of entrepreneurs and leaders.

Karl Kaiser, left, and Don Ziraldo on the Brock University campus in 1999.

“It is hard to think of two individuals whose vision and commitment to quality and excellence better exemplifies dramatic growth in the competitiveness and vitality of the Ontario industry landscape,” Fearon said. “I am proud to say that Brock, through CCOVI, was a partner in these developments reflecting our commitment to supporting transformative regional community and economic growth.”

Comerford saluted the pair’s legacy to research and education.

“I am very proud that for more than 20 years, Donald and Karl have been instrumental in helping to create at Brock, what has become Canada’s leading grape and wine research centre,” he said.

Ontario Chamber of Commerce President Rocco Rossi said Ziraldo and Kaiser were a perfect choice as the first-ever recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Their determination to create the highest quality wines not only transformed the Canadian wine industry but demonstrates the innovation, entrepreneurship and hard work of the businesses built in our own back yard,” said Rossi.

Note: This story was provided by Brock University CCOVI. It appears here as submitted with minor editing.