Karl Kaiser, a meticulous man who helped transform the image of Canadian wine from pedestrian plonk to acclaimed vintages of international renown, died doing what he loved. Mr. Kaiser, who was semi-retired, suffered a stroke on Nov. 21, while making sauvignon blanc at his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He died the next day at the Greater Niagara General Hospital. To those who knew him, both as a passionate maker and avid consumer of wine, it was a fitting end. He was 76.
Born and raised in Austria, Mr. Kaiser immigrated to St. Catharines, Ont., in 1969 with his wife and baby. In those days, adults had to fill out a form in order to buy alcohol for home consumption. If they wanted Canadian wine, the choice was limited and certainly not satisfying to Mr. Kaiser's sophisticated palate.
Having grown up around wine-making, and with a degree in chemistry, Mr. Kaiser, decided to make his own wine. It was also a way of saving money. A newspaper ad led him to Don Ziraldo, owner of a grapevine nursery and grower of hybrid grapes. These were far superior to ones that imparted a "grapey" or "foxy" flavour to sparkling Canadian wines like Baby Duck.
As the two men got acquainted, an idea took shape: With their complementary personalities and skills, they could start their own winery. Mr. Ziraldo, who wore the spotlight well, would be their marketer and promoter, while the more reserved Mr. Kaiser believed he possessed the know-how to produce a quality product. Mr. Ziraldo successfully lobbied the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to give them a licence to pursue their ambition. It was the first new licence to be issued for an Ontario winery since 1929, not long after prohibition ended.
A bank provided financing while Mr. Ziraldo's uncle, who owned a peach farm on the Niagara Parkway, allowed the two men to set up shop in a fruit-packing shed on his property. In 1974, a vineyard of 32 acres was planted with hardy riesling, chardonnay and gamay vines, chosen because they thrive in colder European climates. The land in which the vines were planted had originally belonged to the Colonel of an Irish regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. As a tribute to history, the name of the regiment, minus the final "g," resonated and stuck. Inniskillin Wines was incorporated in July, 1975, however it didn't truly take off until Mr. Kaiser produced something spectacular for Mr. Ziraldo to sell.
Eiswein, a sweet elixir pressed from grapes left to freeze on the vine, was familiar to Mr. Kaiser from the old country. He knew Canada's cold winters would be ideal to produce the beverage, known in English as icewine. The first year's crop fell prey to hungry birds. It was uncharacteristic of Mr. Kaiser to make such a mistake. The following year the grapes were covered in netting.
While Inniskillin was not the first Canadian winery to make icewine, in 1991 its 1989 Vidal Icewine won the highly coveted Grand Prix d'Honneur at Vinexpo in Bordeaux, the vintner's equivalent of an Oscar. This raised the profile of Canadian wines on the world stage and established Mr. Kaiser as the leading expert on icewine. Inniskillin went on to win many more awards, which the modest Mr. Kaiser tended to dismiss as dust-gathering trinkets. He was, however, proud of his nomination to the Order of Ontario in 1993, and his Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, which he received in 2002.
Mr. Ziraldo bought a red Ferrari, but Mr. Kaiser kept driving his old van. A frugal upbringing made him disdainful of ostentation. The one indulgence he allowed himself was new skis, something he'd been unable to afford as a child.
Karl Joseph Kaiser, born on Sept. 22, 1941, grew up in poverty on a small farm in Sankt Veit an der Golsen, in Austria. He was the seventh of nine children in a blended, undemonstrative family. His mother, the former Katharina Renz, was the second wife of his father, also named Joseph, whose first wife had died. The family kept livestock that frequently wandered the courtyard of their home. Having a photographic memory, young Karl was a great reader who, early on, absorbed a vast amount of knowledge. He added to it for the rest of his life. History, astronomy and mythology were his favourites. Charged with looking after a few cows, Karl would become so engrossed in books that the cows would meander off. He, and his annoyed father, would have to run all over town herding them up. The boy's other passion was skiing. He raced locally on skis he made himself.
The Kaisers, a religious family, expected Karl to become a priest. Around the age of 12 he was sent to live at a monastery in nearby Lilienfeld, where he studied German, Greek, Latin and got an early introduction to his true vocation by assisting the monks with wine-making. In the final phase of becoming a priest, Karl was taken aside by the abbot and dissuaded from continuing. The head monk felt that a young man who was so interested in the outside world, one who had so many questions, should follow a different path. Mr. Kaiser would later regard this moment as pivotal and was forever grateful for the advice.
In the mid-sixties, Mr. Kaiser, then teaching economics at a trade school, met 19-year-old Sylvia Petritsch, an Austrian-born Canadian who was visiting her grandparents. The occasion was her grandfather's Heuriger, a traditional social gathering where new wines are sampled. Even though the monastery is often cited as the place where Mr. Kaiser learned winemaking, he said he learned primarily on his wife's grandparents' farm. She and Mr. Kaiser married in Austria in 1967, and had their first daughter there. Two years later the couple moved to St. Catharines, where her parents lived. With teachers in high demand, Mr. Kaiser was readily accepted as an immigrant in his new country. He enrolled in free English classes, pumped gas and, since he was good with his hands, worked a variety of jobs to support a family that grew to include a second daughter and a son.
In the midst of a hectic working life, Mr. Kaiser decided his time would be better spent pursuing further education. He applied to Brock University in St. Catharines but was told his English wasn't good enough to study history. Chemistry, however, with its plethora of symbols and formulae, would be okay. He graduated in 1974 with an honours bachelor of science. It was a background that served him well in the precise world of winemaking.
Generous with hospitality, information and life stories, Mr. Kaiser was keen to share his vast knowledge of viticulture with future generations.
In concert with Brock University, Mr. Kaiser created the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, and the Oenology and Viticulture undergraduate program in 1991. "Karl truly believed that a successful wine region needed a research institute to support it. He was passionate about passing on his knowledge to the next generation," said Debbie Inglis, a long-time friend and current director of the institute.
When Mr. Kaiser gave classes, his students sat in awe. They understood they were learning from a master who could, in a blind tasting, identify a wine and its region from a few sips.
David Sheppard, who worked at Inniskillin for 21 years as Mr. Kaiser's assistant and friend, said Mr. Kaiser was the consummate teacher. "He would explain things in mind-bending detail often drawn out on the side of a steel tank with a wet finger, or in chalk on a barrel head. He was a character full of stories (although a terrible joke-teller), opinions, ideas and never afraid to try something new and radical. … He never stopped learning."
Mr. Sheppard said he sometimes felt like the sorcerer's apprentice. "He could be a bit frantic, and fussed greatly about doing things just so, often doing several things at once," Mr. Sheppard said. Another friend and fellow winery owner, Klaus Reif, referred to Mr. Kaiser as the grandfather of Canadian wine.
"He loved the challenge of making high-quality pinot noir, one of the most complex and difficult wines to perfect," Mr. Reif said.
Mr. Kaiser's children remember him as a man who treated his daughters and son equally; he passed skills like renovation on to his daughters, Magdalena and Andrea, as well as his son, Max. "He inspired people through example and educated us through his endless pursuit of knowledge," Max said. "I don't Google. I Karl."
Even though he was largely absent during his children's early years, Mr. Kaiser was a devoted grandfather who would forgo his nightly glasses of wine if he was required to pick them up. As an example of his exactitude he would say something like, "I will be there at nine minutes past eight." Precision mattered. Celebration didn't. The Kaisers' marriage passed the 50-year mark this year without fanfare.
In later years, Mr. Kaiser made significant changes to his lifestyle. He gave up smoking, cut down on wine consumption and became health-conscious. The art of winemaking, however, remained in his blood. He retained a role as a consultant to Inniskillin during the icewine season. "I will be there when they need me," he told a local Niagara newspaper. "I can't be shut off from winemaking totally. When you've done it for so many years, you can't go away that easily."
Mr. Kaiser leaves his wife, Silvia; daughters, Magdalena and Andrea; son, Max; and seven grandchildren.