Canadian documentary filmmaker Maya Gallus spent two years shadowing grape growers and winemakers in Niagara to assemble Crush: Message in a Bottle. The film captures the rhythms of winemaking through the season, from deliberate and measured pruning in March that sets the vineyard up for the growing season to the go-go-go activities of the harvest season — commonly referred to as “crush” by winemakers. It also focuses its lens on broader issues in wine, notably diversity and inclusion, as it captures challenges faced during the 2021 vintage by Kelly Mason (Mason Vineyard, Domaine Queylus), Shiraz Mottiar (Malivoire Wine Company) and Thomas Bachelder (Bachelder, Le Clos Jordanne).
The heart of Crush: Message in a Bottle is the Saunders family, who have been growing grapes at their Beamsville vineyard since 1965. In the early days, they supplied grapes to Andres to make Baby Duck. Today, daughter Ann-Marie has embraced regenerative viticulture practices, best described as the highest form of organic farming, to produce the best quality fruit while protecting the land and her family’s health. She believes pesticides and other chemicals used on the farm contributed to her mother Ivy’s health issues leading up to her death in 2015.
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The camera takes us behind the scenes where you see how blending happens, how vineyards are monitored for disease, and we meet seasonal workers like Michael Ferguson, a Jamaican who has been coming to do field work at Malvoire for 14 years at the time of the filming. It also shows the anxiety of seeing clusters of rotten grapes dropped to the ground despite all that investment of time and money in the hopes of producing a healthy crop of grapes to make top quality wine. (The risk and reward of making wine in Niagara plays out like the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat used to be conveyed on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.)
During the 2021 growing season, Niagara wine industry had to contend with variable weather from start to finish, experiencing record setting temperatures and drought as well as periods of high rainfall and humidity around harvest that required intense vineyard management to reduce disease from mildew and rot.
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At its root, Crush is a love story that conveys the passion of these vintners who are dedicating their lives to making wine in this sometimes unforgiving, cool climate region. For Mason, a Montreal native who graduated from Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, it meant investing an inheritance into a small vineyard in Vineland where she lives and produces her own wine while working at other wineries to support her venture. She describes her role as a caretaker, seeking to ensure her vineyard has everything it needs to succeed: “It’s embarrassing what I feel when I’m in the vineyard…,” she explains in the film. “I’ll realize that I am talking to the vines.”
Crush: Message in a Bottle will screen November 4 at 3 p.m. at St. Catharines First Ontario Performing Arts Centre and November 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Theatre in Toronto. The 78-minute documentary will be available to stream via tvo.org, starting November 7.