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EXCLUSIVE: New Niagara Custom Crush Studio ‘game changing for the industry’

By Rick VanSickle

Ontario’s first custom crush pad and multi-brand winery with retail and tasting bar is now a reality with the purchase of the Stoney Ridge winery in Vineland by a group of investors led by Rennie Vineyard owner Graham Rennie.

Stoney Ridge will now become the Niagara Custom Crush Studio following the purchase of the winery by a group of four founding partners led by Rennie, and five investors, from previous owner Bob McCown for the Stoney Ridge property, vineyard, buildings, and winery equipment. As part of the deal, all the wines from Stoney Ridge will now be made at the custom crush studio by the new team. A $3-million major renovation and expansion of the winery at the existing Stoney Ridge winery and retail facility will begin in the coming months. Plans call for a build-out of the current winery, encompassing up to 17,000 square feet of production space (currently Stoney Ridge has a 4,700 square feet) with a new state-of-the-art retail and tasting room to support a range of clients who sign up with the Niagara Custom Crush Studio, located at 3201 King Street.

Niagara wine

CEO and the brainchild of the operation, Rennie (above), who moved his range of Rennie Estate appassimento, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines to the new location on the weekend from Malivoire, said, “I always thought this made sense. I’ve talked about it for seven years.”

Graham put together a core team of four partners and several shareholders to bring the custom crush idea to fruition. The deal became official on Aug. 8.

Another of the partners, respected winemaker Marco Piccoli, who enjoyed a nearly 20-year career with Arterra Canada, called the Niagara Custom Crush Studio “game changing for the industry.” He told Wines in Niagara that the facility will cater to both the virtual winemaker who wants to come into the winery and make his own wine exactly as they see fit, or clients who prefer to start a brand but don’t have the technical skill (or desire) to make the wine themselves. Clients will have several options available to them, including the use of the new facility’s marketing and sales expertise, managed by new general manager Matt Loney, formerly of Stoney Ridge and before that, Creekside.

There will be several rooms in the redesigned retail and tasting facility where winemakers can conduct their own tastings for consumers, or winemakers can offer multi-brand tastings of varieties or styles for interested consumers.

The Niagara Custom Crush Studio will operate as a custom crush winery, a consultancy and as a retailer and distributor of multiple branded wines. “Our customers will include existing virtual winemakers, virtual wine brands, small wineries who are currently outsourcing their production to larger wineries and act as an incubator for individuals seeking to access the wine market via a new wine brand,” said Rennie. “As such, the Niagara Custom Crush Studio will execute both business to business and direct to consumer operations.”

Two clients are already on board — Stoney Ridge and Rennie Estate — but, the partners hope that other virtual winemakers will come forward now that the announcement is official. “We look forward to adding new clients,” he said.

Rennie’s estate vineyard, called Heron Pond, is a gorgeous 50-acre site located on the Beamsville Bench where Rennie keeps a portion of the grapes for his own ultra-premium brand and sells the rest. He and his wife Christine have no plans to build a winery on their own property, where their home is built.

Rennie said that producing multiple brands of wine under the winery’s manufacturing licence creates efficiency for brand owners by diversifying production among multiple brand owners and the individual brands “achieve success through shared marketing, elimination of capital investment, reduction of initial financial and time requirements, more efficient processing, access to our retail store sales channel and on-demand, customized client support.”

The retail operation at the new custom crush facility will give all clients an equal opportunity to offer their wines through the winery’s on-site and online retail channel. The retail operation will be directed and managed by the team at the Niagara Custom Crush Studio. “Having an effective retail operation will be fundamental to the overall revenue of the business,” Graham said.

Due to the nature of this unique operation, the team at the Niagara Custom Crush Studio expects to have products that appeal to consumers across all consumer segments. In addition to the “unparalleled variety of hand-crafted, small batch and high-quality wines that will be available to consumers, the Niagara Custom Crush Studio can build mixed product offerings and an effective and adaptable wine club that will be more interesting than any single winery,” Graham noted. These wines and products can be purchased in-store or at the winery retail site and online.”

Rennie noted that the model for the Niagara Custom Crush Studio has already been successful in other jurisdictions including British Columbia (Okanagan Crush Pad), California (Grand Cru Custom Crush and Gravity Wine House, and Oregon (Carlton Winemakers Studio).

Renovations will begin quickly at the new facility. As part of the deal with McCown, winemaking equipment owned by Stoney Ridge, now at Locust Lane winery, is being moved back to the Niagara Custom Crush Studio to allow potential clients to gain access to their winemaking needs as quickly as possible. The plan is to have the crush facility fully functional for all aspects of winemaking for the 2023 harvest, but “clients are welcome to join the studio at any time and begin the opportunity of selling their wines seven days a week,” said Rennie.

Piccoli (with Rennie above at the opening of the retail store on the weekend), who Rennie calls “one of the most experienced winemakers in the country,” is responsible for the winemaking and production side of the new business. “We are catering to a wide range of styles,” he said. Piccoli plans on providing a facility that caters to all winemakers’ needs from organic to natural, to traditional, appassimento, and you name it, within the winery. Organic wines will be kept separate and follow all the guidelines that guide that style of winemaking.

“With multiple winemakers at any one time, there will have to be co-ordination without getting in each other’s way,” Piccoli said. He wants the Niagara Custom Crush Studio to be a “trampoline for new producers to get their feet wet.”

And there will be no superstars at the Niagara Custom Crush Studio, “every client is primary,” said Rennie. “They are all equal. This model was created to have no house brand.”

Initially, the custom crush facility is aiming for a target of 30,000 cases of wine production with the ability to custom crush up to 100,000 cases when it’s fully built out with a 1,000-barrel cellar and tanks for a million litres of wine.

The four partners, from L to R, Paul Doyle, Thane MacKenzie, Graham Rennie, Marco Picolli, and new general manager Matt Loney.

The other two partners in the Niagara Custom Crush Studio, aside from Rennie and Piccoli, are:

Thane MacKenzie, a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) and currently the chief investment officer for Laanko Investment/Holdings, a family office with a portfolio of direct investments in operating companies, real estate investments and public company securities. MacKenzie is also an avid collector of Niagara wines with over 800 bottles in his private cellar.

Paul M. Doyle is the president and CEO of Golden Arrow Advisors Inc. Golden Arrow provides financial and planning services to high net/ultra-high net worth clients, families, businesses and foundations within Canada and on a Global basis. GAII has operated out of the Niagara Region for the past 12 years.