He had been battling cancer for some time, and was dealing with it well, remaining active, attending morning meetings, out on the tractor or working in the winery “just like he always was,” and was happy to have been part of the last harvest, director of marketing Andrew Niven told The Local.
“It’s one of the reasons I’ve always looked up to him — he had such a strong work ethic.”
But it wasn’t really work to Herbert, Niven added — it was just something he loved to do.
However, his health declined over the last two weeks, and he passed away peacefully, at home, surrounded by his family.
“It was a sad situation, but it couldn’t have happened any better, with him at home, where he would have wanted to be.”
It was a somber and emotional weekend at the winery, says Niven, but team members were sharing their stories of Konzelmann — he was someone who connected with people, and had a personal touch with each of them. “Everyone who knew him had a unique story to share.”
One of the stories he liked to tell, and shared when he received a lifetime achievement award two years ago, was that before making a decision to transplant his family to Canada and build a winery, he filled a suitcase with soil from a lakeshore peach orchard and took it back home to Germany to be tested.
The result convinced him he could grow vitis vinifera grapes, instead of the hybrids most grape growers had planted.
Farming had always been in his family, as far back as 1521. His ancestors lived in a small village in Germany, where grape growing dates back to 1108. In the 1890s, Friedrich Konzelmann, Herbert’s great-grandfather, was experimenting with homemade wine in the cellars of one of his restaurants, and served his first glass to his diners in the spring of 1893.
It was 1984 when Konzelmann, then 47, packed up every machine and vine he owned, and brought his young family to Niagara to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather. He planted 100 per cent vitis vinifera grapes, and before long was winning awards for his wines and building a reputation as a pioneer for the Niagara icewine industry.
Herbert first purchased 40 acres of peaches on Lakeshore Road, and replaced many of them with vinifera plantings. The winery opened its doors in 1988. In 1997, he purchased a second vineyard, and in 2006, removed a corner of vines, and work began on the observation tower and retail boutique.
When he arrived in Canada, he found it very difficult, especially not being able to speak much English. But he had worked hard, and said when he looked over his vineyards, he was proud of what he had accomplished.
“It was here Herbert truly found himself and began paving the way for what would become a flourishing wine region. His vision from the very beginning was always built around hospitality and providing a product for everyone to enjoy,” says a release from the winery on his passing.
Today, most Niagara growers have vitis vinifera grapes planted, and Konzelmann Estate Winery has won hundreds of awards in the intervening years, not only in Niagara but in Europe and London, England.
In 2019, Konzelmann was presented with the first ever Ontario Wine Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his many years of outstanding contributions to the Ontario wine industry.
Twenty-five years before that, he had been named the first Ontario Wine Awards Winemaker of the Year.
Niagara wines today have more finesse, more fruit, and are more elegant than many around the world, he said at the time of his Ontario wine industry recognition, and Konzelmann Estate Winery had already been named one of the top 100 in the world.
Yet he would still get out into the vineyard whenever he could to prune, cut the grass or spread compost, and he was still the one to decide when it was time to harvest the grapes.
But he was also quick to say, when he was recognized with the lifetime achievement award, that he had good people to head every department, and for that he was very grateful.
He said then, in the summer of 2019, “life is good. I really, really like my job. I don’t know how much longer I’ll keep doing this, but for as long as I can, I will.”
And he did, right up to within two weeks of his passing.
“I have not only lost a father, but a best friend, confidant and role model,” said his daughter Claudia in emailed comments. “My father was a man of faith who cared deeply for his friends, community, co-workers, and most of all, family.”
Her father lived a great life, fully invested in the winery, “not because he had to, but because he truly loved to. I am so thankful for his life lessons, and the unconventional love he spread to everyone he met. He was a devoted husband to wife Gudrun of 57 years, caring father, grandfather and great-grandfather . . . and someone who we will never forget. I would also like to thank everyone for the outpouring of love and support since my father’s passing. It really means a lot to myself and family.”
Jim Reschke, Herbert’s daughter Ulla’s husband and vice president of Konzelmann, says he has never met a person who had the drive, passion and dedication of his father-in-law. “He leaves a huge void and will be greatly missed.”
Today the winery is flourishing, “producing more than 500,000 bottles each year and employing a team of close to 75 people. New experiences, immerse tastings and vast array of wines continue to highlight the wineries success; all of which emanate from a vision Herbert Konzelmann had over 35 years ago.”
He was a pioneer in every definition of the word, says the release, a guiding light for the industry he came to love, and a man “whose legacy will forever continue with each bottle of Konzelmann wine.”
Visitation was held at the George Darte Funeral Chapel Monday, with a private family funeral to take place at a later date, and burial at Niagara Lakeshore Cemetery.
Niven says although there has been no announcement at this point, there will likely be a more public celebration of his life outdoors on the winery property in the future.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Terry Fox Foundation or to Full Gospel Church.