Estrella River Winery
Estrella River Winery

Custom crush is, most commonly, the practice of a licensed and bonded winery producing wine for a client. Ultimately the wine can be bottled with his or her own label on the bottles or cans, but that is not necessarily so. A little-publicized category of custom crush is when growers have unsold fruit and need it made into wine for preservation; in most cases, the wine is then sold to other wineries, large and small.

Another custom crush service is for wineries with high volume brands that contract for additional volumes of wine, with or without input as to grape sourcing. They take possession of the wine in bulk and not in the bottle. Since World War II, many small producers who lacked the skill or capital to make their own wine in their own facilities established relationships for this purpose. Those small producers, as well as large commercial sellers like Trader Joes, continue this tradition, contracting with established wineries around the globe to produce wine under their own labels.

Custom Crush in the 1930s

Custom crush started In San Luis Obispo County just as Prohibition ended in 1933. Custom crush began when the York Brothers Winery, the oldest winery in the County dating to 1895, crushed Zinfandel grapes grown by the famous Polish pianist, Ignace Paderewski, to make his award-winning wine. Paderewski won a gold medal at the California State Fair for his Zinfandel in 1934. This is the gold medal for wine produced in San Luis Obispo County after Prohibition ended.

In 1936 as the Great Depression continued, a group of Zinfandel growers in the Templeton area began advertising their Zinfandel grapes for sale at $28 per ton. They hoped to find new customers, but there continued to be more grapes than buyers. Grape grower Sylvester Dusi, an entrepreneur who was always working with other Italian families to help them sell their crops and wines, decided to lease a building in downtown San Luis Obispo in 1938. Sylvester opened the San Luis Winery. It was located in downtown San Luis Obispo between Palm and Monterey Streets near his liquor store. The winery was established to help Italian growers who had a surplus of grapes but were not able to sell them directly to a winery. Sylvester bought all new equipment and redwood barrels. Growers were able to crush their grapes and have Sylvester make the wine. However, the redwood barrels were not treated and therefore contaminated the wine. Only one vintage was crushed at the San Luis Winery. The winery was shut down in 1938 or 1939. Ever the entrepreneur, Sylvester was able to sell the bulk wine to a distillery to make brandy. He made history: Sylvester established the second custom crush operation prior to World War II.

Custom Crush in the 1970s and 80s

After World War II, the concept of custom crush changed; custom crush became the business of making wine for a client and bottling it with the client’s own label.

The third custom crush business in San Luis Obispo County was developed at the stunning Estrella River Winery, with 26,000 square feet surrounded by 700 acres of vineyards, east of Paso Robles. It was designed and bonded by Gary Eberle, James and Cliff Giacobini, and completed in 1977. Estrella River Winery was the first large modern winery established after World War II and the launching pad for two men who would make history in the custom crush and winemaking business. Tom Myers, a graduate in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis, was hired by winemaker Gary Eberle as Assistant Winemaker at Estrella River Winery in 1978. Tom was the first winemaker who worked in San Luis Obispo County with a solid science background and a degree from UC Davis. He also is known for his remarkable palate, his sensitive and acute taste for wines. Tom has a memory of each wine he has ever tasted, analyzed, and critiqued. He became known as the mentor, the problem solver, and the master winemaker in San Luis Obispo County. His colleagues refer to him as the awesome winemakers’ winemaker

The 1970s was a time when white wines were favored over red by restaurants and local consumers. However, most vineyards were producing more red grapes than white. As a result, growers who sold white wine grapes contracted with buyers requiring them to buy two tons or more red grapes for every ton of white grapes purchased. The red wine produced from these grapes at Estrella River Winery became the “Custom Crush” product that launched the career of Niels Udsen, who bottled the Zinfandel under his own label Castoro Cellars in 1982 while working on the production line at Estrella River Winery. Niels and his wife, Bimmer, realized they could make wine and sell it directly to restaurants and wine shops, without investing in their own vineyards or building a winery. This was a novel approach – your wine, your label, no tasting room, no vineyards, no winery.

Niels, a true entrepreneur, noted the strong interest in California winemaking developing locally; graduates from UC Davis and Cal Poly, as well as home winemakers in Los Angeles County, were moving to San Luis Obispo County where land was cheap and available. New vineyards were being planted in the Mediterranean climate of the Central Coast where the classic grape varieties were thriving.

When Tom Myers became the Winemaker in 1982 at Estrella River Winery, more people were opening new wineries in Paso Robles; most wineries were small with little experience in viticulture or enology. They were looking for education and expertise. Estrella River was producing a surplus of wine made from grapes grown in their own vineyards; the Estrella River Winery offered custom crush services, bottling Estrella River wine under labels established by Mission View in San Miguel, Barron and Kolb, Gary Eberle, John Munch and Niels Udsen in Paso Robles. The next phase of custom crush was for wineries to grow their own grapes and make wine at Estrella. The Caparone Winery and Zaca Mesa brought their own fruit to crush at Estrella. Tom Myers was there to assist winemakers in the process of making and bottling their own wine.

In the late 1980s Niels Udsen expanded the vision of custom crush services dramatically; he organized local winemakers to contract for a new service he would be providing, a mobile bottling unit because no local bottling facilities were available in San Luis Obispo County for new winemakers. Niels built his capital with this new business, enabling him to purchase additional trucks as the need grew for more bottling services.

Stephen Dooley, a graduate of UC Davis in enology, was hired as the winemaker at the Edna Valley Vineyard in 1987 to make a clear barrel-fermented Chardonnay. The Chardonnay he produced received nationwide attention and 91 points from Wine Spectator.

At the time, Edna Valley Vineyard produced 35,000 cases with 25,000 under the label of Edna Valley Chardonnay and 10,000 cases with private labels. This was the first time that private labels had been created for customers who sold the Chardonnay in stores and restaurants. The Chaparral label, named by Judy Breitstein, was designed for David Breitstein, owner of the Duke of Bourbon Wine Shop in Canoga Park. Other labels were produced for restaurants, liquor and wine shops in California. Stephen also worked with Catharine Niven, the first woman in the Edna Valley to produce Chardonnay under her own label, Tiffany Hill. These were Stephen’s first experiences in the custom crush business.

1994 was the year Stephen founded his own label, Stephen Ross Cellars. His first vintage was made in a custom crush facility alongside the wines he produced for the late Bob Miller, whose family founded the French Camp Vineyard. Stephen made wines from grapes sourced at French Camp to showcase the quality of those premium grapes for California winemakers. The wines were made at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria.

In the same year, Stephen was hired by Morro Bay Vineyards, a new private label established in 1993 under the Chalone Wine Group, to produce Chardonnay. Stephen produced the first vintage for Chalone at Central Coast Wine Services in 1994. Production was moved to Castoro Cellars in San Miguel in 1995 where Stephen worked with winemaker Tom Myers to produce the 1995,1996, and 1997 vintages of Chardonnay for Morro Bay Vineyards.

In 1997, Stephen was asked to design a custom crush pad to be located in the Edna Valley for Bob Schiepelhut, owner of the Edna Ranch. In Bob’s negotiations during the permitting process Bob was asked to build a larger facility, a winery that could also accommodate large custom crush operations. Stephen completed the design and consulted on the building process. It opened in record time for the 1998 harvest season under the name Courtside Cellars. Stephen was able to move both labels, Stephen Ross Wine and Morro Bay Vineyards, to Courtside Cellars for the 1998 vintages.

The Modern Custom Crush

Stephen Dooley moved into his own facility in 2008 on Suburban Road in San Luis Obispo. He has continued to offer custom crush services to small producers. Stephen Ross Wine Cellars provides consulting and custom crush services for Filipponi Ranch, Piedra Creek, Jack Hammer, Cutruzzola, and Peloton Cellars.

Tom Myers mentored Niels Udsen in winemaking and was hired as the winemaker for Castoro Cellars in 1990. The collaboration between Niels and Tom Myers has been unique and has transformed winemaking in San Luis Obispo County.

As Castoro Cellars wine sales and the bottling business expanded, Niels and his wife Bimmer Udsen were able to purchase land on which to plant organic vineyards. They also remodeled the building which houses a large winemaking facility, providing the largest custom crush business in the County.

The custom crush services at Castoro Cellars produce wine for clients from Trader Joes to winemakers in New Zealand. Tom has shipped his wine in bulk and by the case to wineries in Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin. Bulk wines are shipped internationally to Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, England, and France.

A winery in New Zealand recently sent a tanker to California with Sauvignon Blanc wine to be canned at Castoro Cellars, the most recent expansion of custom crush services at Castoro Cellars.

Tom Myers continues to make award-winning Castoro Cellars wines as well as hundreds of thousands of gallons of highly praised premium wines for individuals, businesses, and wineries throughout California. Tom has worked 42 harvests and, at last count, produced and filled over 190 million bottles of wine in San Luis Obispo County. No one else comes close to that record!

A few words about the trend toward “Custom Crush”: The custom crush business enables economies of scale in an industry where it takes millions of investment dollars to build and equip a modern winery. Custom crush services provide shared costs of processing, wine storage, bottling, and warehousing. It enables a brand to source grapes from a wide variety of growers. But perhaps the most important services are the consultation, the collaboration and the problem solving that occurs with the winemaker at the custom crush facility. It encourages cooperation and experimentation with experts. Castoro Cellars winemaker Tom Myers has mentored hundreds of winemakers in San Luis Obispo and made it possible for them to succeed. Financially speaking, clients are paying to process their fruit under Castoro Cellars bond and Tom Myers’ supervision. The client must have a particular state license to resell the wine and must pay all federal and excise taxes. The custom crush facility is responsible to have each label approved and for maintaining all records and reports. Each client maintains his own insurance.

According to Spirited Magazine in May 2019, the bulk custom crush charges in the United States range from $500 to $1,000 per ton ($8 to $18 per case) while high-quality custom crush charges range from $1,500 to $3,600 ( $26 to $60 per case) to produce your own vintage. The custom crush business creates good cash flow for the owner; the small producer has a finished product that can be sold immediately, providing both savings and convenience. When you purchase your next bottle of wine, read the label carefully to see where it was made and bottled. You may be in for a surprise!