Rosanna Caira Lifetime Achievement Award: Donald Ziraldo

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Donald Ziraldo’s name is synonymous with success. The 68-year old co-founder of Inniskillin Wines and now owner of Ziraldo Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. has led a charmed life: he’s travelled the world, driven fast cars and rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. But the gregarious entrepreneur will forever be known as the man who put Canada on the map as a producer of premium-estate wines and exceptional Icewines, as well as the country’s greatest wine ambassador. Along the way, the charismatic Ziraldo has garnered myriad accolades and awards, succeeding against all odds with uncharacteristic Canadian panache and flair.

Born in St. Catharines, Ont. to Fiorello and Irma Ziraldo, the eldest of three boys was raised in a close-knit Italian family in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where his father owned Ziraldo Farms & Nursery. When his father suddenly passed away when Donald was only 15, the teenager assumed increased responsibility on the farm and in the nursery. It wasn’t surprising he ended up enrolling in the agricultural college at the University of Guelph where he earned a BSc in Agriculture in 1971.

It was a chance encounter with Karl Kaiser — a former teacher and Austrian immigrant who happened to show up at Ziraldo Nursery one day looking to buy some European grape varieties to make homemade wine — that spurred a chain of events culminating in the two men revolutionizing the Canadian wine scene.

“Karl came to the nursery to buy hybrid vines,” recalls Ziraldo. At the time, most of the wines produced in Canada were made from the indigenous Labrusca vines — the same ones that produce Concord grapes. “He didn’t want those vines because they produced a sweet, foxy taste,” characteristic of much of the wines produced in Canada at that time. Kaiser had heard that Ziraldo had been experimenting with winter-resistant, hardy hybrids and propagating them in his family’s nursery for several of the area’s wineries, including Brights and Château-Gai. After buying the Friulan vines, Kaiser eventually returned with a sample of the wine he made from them for Ziraldo to taste. One thing led to another, with Kaiser ultimately proposing, “Why don’t I make it and you sell it?”

It was the beginning of a relationship that would give rise to a new appreciation for Canadian winemaking. But it didn’t come without challenges. The duo approached the LCBO for a winery license, which had not been given out in Ontario since 1929. Persistence and determination fuelled the young Ziraldo, who found a friend and a mentor in General George Kitching, then head of the LCBO, who even provided Ziraldo with barrels to age the wines. “There was no grand plan,” recalls Ziraldo. “I was busy working seven days a week with my mom and two brothers but it seemed like a good idea.”

It wasn’t until the duo produced their first wine, a Maréchel Foch, which placed first in a wine competition, that the partners realized they were on to something. The wine was produced from vinifera vines and Ziraldo and Kaiser were counting on being the first winery to introduce the varietal. But, a month before they planned to launch their wine, a TV commercial aired featuring Château-Gai’s Paul Bosc Sr., extolling the virtues of the first Maréchal Foch, and pre-empting Ziraldo and Kaiser. The partners were devastated. “Luckily,” recalls Ziraldo, “they produced so little of it, they ran out quickly, forcing consumers to buy our Inniskillin product. I always thank Paul Bosc Sr. for getting us started,” laughs Ziraldo.

With Kaiser as the consummate winemaker — experimenting with varietals such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Gamay — and Ziraldo the astute marketer and voice of the fledgling company, Inniskillin not only succeeded, it thrived based on the partners’ philosophy that only premium grapes could produce premium wines.

“We refused to do anything that was mediocre. Our dream was to make world-class wines.” “Finding a place for the table wines was a real struggle,” admits Ziraldo. In fact, it wasn’t until the company introduced wines produced from frozen grapes on the vine that success really took hold. “It was Karl’s idea and I thought it was the dumbest idea — I told him he was drinking too much of his own wine,” quips Ziraldo. “What is this frozen wine you’re talking about?” But Kaiser was right on the money, evidenced by Inniskillin’s strong showing in Bordeaux in 1989 and its momentous win in 1991 when it was awarded gold at VinExpo in Bordeaux and the Grand Prix d’honneur for its Vidal Icewine. “We got a lot of play from that,” says Ziraldo. “There was a real wow factor with the Icewine. You couldn’t go wrong. The advantage of Icewine was it was Canadian and people could understand how a cold country like Canada could produce it,” explains Ziraldo.

At the time, it was unheard of for a Canadian wine to gain that kind of international acclaim. It was also unheard of for a Canadian wine company to market itself so well. “We came back to Niagara and all of a sudden we had double-decker busloads of Japanese tourists buying armfuls of the Icewine to bring back home. It grew from there. We were at the right place at the right time,” he says, pointing to the strong team that helped him. While it surprised even Ziraldo, he was astute enough to recognize the potential of the product and the power of the niche market they were creating.

He was also one of the first wine producers to understand the importance of targeting restaurants. “I discovered sommeliers and they became our personal ambassadors,” recalls Ziraldo. “If they like your wine, they recommend it and the third-party endorsements are better than anything else.”

Ziraldo’s influence on the Canadian wine industry goes well beyond his role at Inniskillin. He founded and chaired for seven years the Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) — a legislated wine authority that produces a stringent code of regulations for Canadian-produced wines and ensures the premium quality and origin of Canadian wines. In the process, he helped raise the country’s profile as a wine-producing nation. He was also instrumental in creating the Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute at Brock University, where he was its first co-chair — helping to solidify Niagara as an innovative cool-climate region. Bringing the marriage of food and wine together, Ziraldo also chaired the capital campaign for the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College. Along the way, he’s received many distinctions. In 1998, he was awarded the Order of Canada for his role in promoting Canadian wines and received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Brock University. Additionally, he was voted one of the Top 25 Entrepreneurs of the 20th century in Canada by the National Post. “To be acknowledged by Canada is a true honour and to be voted amongst the Top 25 CEOs, with 24 other men that I admire, is incredible,” says Ziraldo. In 2004, Ziraldo was conferred Honorary Citizen of Fagagna, his father’s hometown in Fruili, Italy, where the dynamic businessman also owns a vineyard growing Picolit grapes. But he’s particularly proud that being a wine producer has given him a platform to do something significant. “I’ve always felt that I was put on this earth to do something…To be able to use the platform to allow people to get over skepticism that we couldn’t produce wines in a cold nation has been amazing.” Ziraldo’s work has been groundbreaking. According to iconic restaurateur Franco Prevedello, “Ziraldo is the real pioneer of the now great Canadian wine industry. Donald is the Canadian Robert Mondavi.”

Though Ziraldo left Inniskilllin in 2006 after Constellation Brands acquired the company, he quickly realized retirement wasn’t for him. By 2007, he was back planting a new vineyard on the site of the original Inniskillin estate winery and, a year later, he launched Ziraldo Estate Winery, where, after much research, he’s turned his focus to organic and biodynamic wines and his attention to Riesling Icewine. Not surprisingly, the accolades continue. Earlier this year — 27 years after Inniskillin’s great win at Bordeaux — Ziraldo Estate Winery garnered the “Best-of-the-Best” Special Award for its Riesling Icewine from the Citadelles du Vin at Bordeaux’s VinExpo wine show.

He also managed to find time to manage the Senhora Do Convento port winery in Portugal. As fate would have it, while managing the winery he met Victoria Gilbert, a documentary-film producer. In 2012, they married and she became a partner in his business, as well as mother to their four-year old son, Aspen, named after the city where Ziraldo spent so much time indulging in his other passion — skiing.

As someone who helped Canada develop its wine industry, Ziraldo is gratified to witness first-hand the growth in the Niagara region, where more than 150 wineries now dot the landscape, as well as in Canada, which now boasts a total of 500 wineries. But he’s frustrated that Canadian wines haven’t grown as much internationally, pointing to other, smaller wine-producing nations such as New Zealand — with a population of 4.7 million compared to Canada’s 35 million — as an example of a new-world wine producer that has achieved great success internationally. He hopes the next generation of winemakers will help remedy that.

For now, he’s happy to share his industry knowledge, to serve as a mentor to the next generation of wine producers and to pay it forward. “I want to encourage and support young people and young winemakers,” says the man who paved the way.

And, while Ziraldo Estate Winery keeps him busy doing what he does best, these days, he’s deriving the most joy from experiencing fatherhood for the first time at a later stage of his life. “I’m so blessed to have Victoria in my life. She’s allowed me to live life backwards.

She’s a phenomenal mom and I’m enjoying helping to raise my son. I’m now happiest when working in my vineyards, with my son by my side.”

Fittingly, he’s come full circle, raising his son on the same tract of land where he achieved so much success with Inniskillin and not too far from the farm where he himself was raised. “Who knows” he says with a tinge of pride in his voice, “maybe someday, instead of being a ski bum or a scuba diver, my son might want to be in the wine industry.”

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