Malcolm Jolley: Amidst a worrisome winter, The Crush is Niagara’s good news wine story

The Niagara Custom Crush Studio is the only "crush pad" in Ontario
Matt Loney, Graham Rennie, and Marco Piccoli. Photo credit Malcolm Jolley.

The news from the Okanagan is bleak. After freezing weather in January, there may be essentially no harvest this year. Even before the latest climate disaster, the B.C. wine industry has been struggling, with dozens of wineries purportedly up for sale. Canada’s second-largest wine region is in survival mode.

Over here in Ontario, things look brighter, although an oddly mild winter so far must evoke worries among vintners about early bud break and flash frosts. But generally, the mood seems to be pretty good, with a few particularly successful recent vintages coming into the market and some steady growth. One specific good news story, coming off of the Beamsville Bench, must be the new Niagara Custom Crush Studio.

Last week, I went to check out The Crush on the advice of Marlize Beyers who urged me to go and see it for myself when I spoke to her for a Hub piece about her new wine. The Niagara Custom Crush Studio is the only “crush pad” in Ontario. It’s a place where winemakers without a winery can bring their grapes to be sorted, pressed, and made into wine. Until it opened in 2022, if you wanted to make some wine but didn’t have the means of production, like Beyers, you had to rely on the kindness of another winery and hope they had space for your wine.

Once there, I learned The Crush is the product of a kind of Ontario wine veterans supergroup. The principals include long-time grower and vigneron CEO Graham L. Rennie of Rennie Estate Winery and Heron Pond Benchland Vineyard, Marco Piccoli as COO, who was formerly the director of Winemaking at Arterra, Canada’s largest wine company, and GM Matt Loney, formerly of Creekside and Stoney Ridge wineries.

There’s even a celebrity angle to the Niagara Custom Crush Studio story. The site is the old Stoney Ridge Estate Winery, owned by the sportscaster Bob “The Bobcat” McCown. Production started in the original 4,500-square-foot Stoney Ridge facility and retail and tasting room buildings in 2022. This year, they have been dwarfed by a new crush pad and 7,000 square foot winery attached that is capable of handling a million litres and was completed just in time to take in the 2023 harvest.

Currently, The Crush makes wine with seven “independent” producers. These range from Stoney Creek to boutique wineries like Rennie’s and the low-intervention Terroiriste wine project Therianthropy. Rennie said they’d like to have ten to twelve producers making wine next year.

The actual crush pad is the space outside the winery that receives grapes. Looking at the array of new equipment, Loney explained their modus operandi was flexibility. “We can really turn the dial from big to small to accommodate any size producer.” While Stoney Ridge makes about 10,000 cases a year, the smaller producers at The Crush can make as little as 200 cases, or four standard-sized barrels.

Inside the winery, Piccoli takes up Loney’s theme explaining that the Niagara Custom Crush Studio’s flexibility goes beyond volume and extends to technique. At one end of the hanger-like building, he shows me a row of concrete eggs brought in by Therianthropy’s winemaker David Eiberg. Seasoned winemakers like Eiberg, or Beyers, work their wines independently. Other clients at The Crush can fully leverage Piccoli’s decades of experience. In either case, he and his team are there to keep an eye out for trouble.

Aside from making the Stoney Ridge wines, Piccoli also makes wine at The Crush, including Unscripted, his collaboration with film and TV director Mike Pohorly who grew up in Niagara on his family’s River Bend Farms. He manages a wide array of wine-making styles, from the appassimento super premium Rennie wines to Stony Ridge collaboration labels, like the one for the surviving members of the Tragically Hip.

Rennie sees the Niagara Custom Crush Studio as an incubator; a place for new independent winemakers to get their feet on the ground before making the intense capital commitment of building a winery. A seasoned financier, Rennie stresses the business help The Crush can offer winemakers who are striking out on their own for the first time. “It’s great to make wine,” he said with a smile, “but everybody finds out eventually that it’s all about selling.”

Wine tanks inside the Niagara Custom Crush Studio. Photo credit Malcolm Jolley.

Speaking of which, with the new production facility in full swing, The Crush team is gearing up for the 2024 tourist season at their tasting room, wine shop, and “cheese cellar,” a delicatessen featuring local and imported cheese and charcuterie. The winery is located on Highway 81, the main east-west drag along the foot of the Escarpment, in the heart of the “Benches” wine country. It’s about 100 kilometres from the middle of Toronto.

Rennie sees the Niagara Custom Crush Studio as must must-visit spot because of the variety of Niagara wines they pour. “There’s nowhere else where you can have access to such an array of terroirs,” he said, pointing out that most conventional wineries make wine from a handful of sites. This bore out at a mini-tasting conducted with him, Loney, and Piccolo. It also emphasized different techniques and styles of winemaking, even among wines that were made by Piccoli himself.

Piccoli likes to compare the Niagara Custom Crush Studio to a museum: “At an art gallery, you have one painting next to another, and it’s interesting to see the differences.” He said this at the end of a flight of Crush red wines that began with a young fresh 2023 Therianthropy Pinot Noir and Gamay made in a Beaujolais Nouveau style and ended with a Rennie Bordeaux blend from 2016 made from grapes Rennie dried in a custom built fruttaio, and I could see his point.

The Niagara Custom Crush Studio also, of course, sells wine directly from their website to Toronto and beyond.

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