Default header image

“The Life and Legacy of Donald Ziraldo” ~Joseph Rossi

The Life and Legacy of Donald Ziraldo

Donald Ziraldo played a vital role in the development of the Canadian wine industry whereby Ziraldo effectively marketed Inniskillin wines to achieve recognition both in Canada and internationally. The academic poster I created examined four integral segments of Donald Ziraldo’s life. These include his motivation to establish a winery, factors which contributed to Inniskillin’s rise to fame, Ziraldo’s contributions to the Canadian viticulture industry beyond his work at Inniskillin, and finally his lasting legacy as a Canadian icon.


Donald Ziraldo was born in St. Catharines, Ontario to a family who owned a mixed-fruit farm. Ziraldo’s father was from the Friuli region in Italy and planted a mix of French hybrid grapes; these grapes were uncommon in the region at the time. Ziraldo would often accompany his father to deliver their grapes to different wineries. After his passing, Ziraldo was responsible for the caring of the farm while studying at the Ontario Agriculture College at the University of Guelph, and he would share his homemade wine with his peers. The co-founder of Inniskillin was Karl Kaiser, a school-teacher from Austria who emigrated to Niagara region. Upon arriving in Canada, Kaiser was unimpressed by local Canadian wine and desired to make his own but required specialty grapes. A number of people in the region recommended he purchase the grapes from Ziraldo’s farm. Ziraldo and Kaiser met and were impressed with the wine the other produced. Kaiser then proposed that together they establish a winery and Ziraldo agreed.[1]

Inniskillin is Born

Initially, Ziraldo and Kaiser’s request for a wine license was staunchly rejected by the LCBO. But their fortunes were alerted after a change in management at the LCBO made Major General George Kitching CEO, who would become Inniskillin’s greatest champion. Upon hearing of Ziraldo’s desire for a wine license, Kitching met with him and Kaiser in April 1974 and immediately granted them a one-year license after tasting their wine. One year later the duo received a permanent license. In order to show gratitude to Kitching, who was a war veteran, the duo named their winery Inniskillin after Regimental Commander Cooper of the Inniskillin who had previously owned the land they bought for their winery. The two men had distinct roles in the winery: Kaiser would oversee production of the wine and Ziraldo would market it.[2]

The Rise to International Acclaim

Ziraldo understood the effective marketing of Inniskillin wines to be of paramount importance in order to ensure the prosperity of his newfound winery. First, Ziraldo desired to ensure Inniskillin wines were on the menus of the most prestigious restaurants in Toronto and found success with La Scala and the Windsor Arms. Next, Ziraldo effectively used digital media to promote Inniskillin appearing on TV shows such as Live with Pamela Wallin and by being featured in a promotional video on Air Canada flights. Yet, arguably the greatest factor which contributed to Inniskillin’s rise to fame is their success at international wine trade shows. In 1991, Ziraldo attended a show called Vinexpo in Bordeaux, France to showcase Kaiser’s ice-wine. The ice-wine won the Grand prix d’Honneur for best wine in the show and Ziraldo ensured this news spread by preparing a press release which he sent to the international media, restaurateurs and sommeliers. Ziraldo subsequently transitioned his focus to international marketing, especially in the Asian sphere. Specifically, Ziraldo travelled to Japan to arrange a visit for Japanese investors to visit Inniskillin, and he held wine tastings for wealthy landowners in Singapore. Further, Ziraldo developed a host of prudent international marketing strategies. For instance, Inniskillin sponsored an international pastry competition in Las Vegas. The international acclaim of Inniskillin wines lead to it being featured on the menus of world-renowned restaurants and galas hosted by government officials. These included the Four Seasons in Japan, the International Gold Medal dinner in Toronto and a dinner hosted by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife in 1992.[3]  

Canadian Viticulture Industry

Donald Ziraldo significantly influenced the Canadian viticulture industry beyond his work with Inniskillin.Ziraldo played a prominent role in the creation of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), founded in 1988 and was appointed as its Chairman. The VQA is an independent body responsible for setting and supervising rules that regulate the production and quality of wine in Ontario. Ziraldo was motivated to create the VQA to build public recognition and interest in Ontario’s three major wine-producing regions known as Designated Viticulture Areas (DVAs): Lake Erie, Niagara Peninsula and Pelee Island. The VQA allowed Canadian wines to gain recognition from both the European Economic Community and the United States.[4] One other notable contribution Ziraldo made to the Canadian viticulture industry was his work in founding the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) at Brock University. The institute conducts research and grants degrees in oenology and viticulture.[5]

The Ziraldo Legacy

Donald Ziraldo partnered with the Canadian Olympic Committee to sponsor Canadian Olympians for the 2004 games. Ziraldo did so through the Vine Planting Fundraiser where the Canadian public had the opportunity to purchase their own vine with all proceeds donated to the Excellence Fund. The Fund was created by the Canadian Olympic Committee and provides direct grants to Canadian athletes as well as funding for coaching, training facilities, equipment and travel to international competitions. Ziraldo was very passionate about this campaign as he explained, “We at Inniskillin know that it takes commitment, perseverance, teamwork and many years of hard work and training to become a great athlete who can compete on a world class level.”[6] This campaign demonstrates the patriotism of Donald Ziraldo. Although the son of first generation immigrants, it is evident Ziraldo fully embraced his Canadian nationality. Donald Ziraldo was a pioneer in Canada’s viticulture industry and his work has made him a renowned Canadian figure and the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. In 1993 he received the Order of Ontario and in 1998 the Order of Canada. Additionally, in 1999 Ziraldo was named one of the top 25 Canadian CEOs of the Century by National Post Business Magazine. The Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association (CIBPA) granted Ziraldo and Inniskillin the 2002 award for “Business Excellence.” In 2007, Ziraldo received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership. Finally, in 2012 Ziraldo was awarded the Diamond Jubilee Award granted to those who have made a significant contribution to a particular province or territory in Canada or for outstanding achievement abroad.[7]

                                                                                                            Joseph Rossi

                                                                                                            University of Toronto, 2019


Bramble, Linda. Niagara’s Wine Visionaries. 1st ed. Reprint, Toronto: J. Lorimer, 2009.

Smith, Sarah. “Sweet On Icewines: New Access To European Markets Means Canada’s Award-Winning Dessert Wines Are Vying For Consumer Affection”. ProQuest 106, no. 33 (2001).

Ziraldo, Donald. “Archives & Special Collections Brock University”. St. Catherines, Ontario, n.d. Brock University.

Ziraldo, Donald. “Ziraldo Wines”. Ziraldo Wines, 2019.

[1] Linda Bramble, Niagara’s Wine Visionaries, 1st ed. (repr., Toronto: J. Lorimer, 2009).

[2] Donald Ziraldo, “Archives & Special Collections Brock University” (St. Catherines, Ontario, n.d.), Brock University.

[3] “Archives & Special Collections Brock University.”

[4] Sarah, Smith “Sweet on Icewines: New Access To European Markets Means Canada’S Award-Winning Dessert Wines Are Vying For Consumer Affection”, Proquest 106, no. 33 (2001).

[5] “Archives & Special Collections Brock University.”

[6] “Archives & Special Collections Brock University”

[7] Donald Ziraldo, “Ziraldo Wines”, Ziraldo Wines, 2019,