“How in the world did you find us? ” is how the website of the Organized Crime Winery greets you when you land there, and they have a point. An obscure little house winery on the Beamsville Bench in Niagara’s wine country, Organized Crime Winery isn’t on everyone’s radar. But it should be. Not just for the wine itself inside their bottles, but for the equally memorable story that inspired the design on the outside of them.
As an art director who has worked in advertising for many years, brands interest me, especially the stories behind them. And while a lot of brands these days desperately seek to manufacture authenticity, Organized Crime lives up to its brand in everything from the attitude of its rebellious proprietor, Krystyna, to the design of its labels.
Let’s start with Krystyna, who operates the winery along with her husband, albeit a bit reluctantly. An artist first, and former art director herself for Harlequin books, Krystyna’s first passion is painting, but indulging her husband’s passion for winemaking has meant that her painting studio down the hill sees a lot less of her than the vineyards surrounding it.
That’s not to say she hasn’t poured her heart and soul into Organized Crime Winery – starting with the research she did into the local folklore that inspired the name of the winery, and whose story is brought to life on the labels themselves.
The story goes that in the early to mid 1900’s, two feuding Mennonite churches in the area had a dispute when the less conservative congregation acquired a pipe organ, considered verboten by the more strict church. The members of the conservative church conspired to steal the organ, which they subsequently loaded onto a wagon and destroyed by dumping it down a creed embankment – hence the birth of the ORGANized crime brand. Clever, we thought! (not so the Ontario Liquor Licensing Board, who didn’t get it and balked at the idea of mobster wine. Seriously?) But I digress.
The labels tell the story through wonderful illustrations seen through the framework of the church windows, with each vintage showcasing a piece of the story. Bottle by bottle, the tale unfolds, with whimsical design touches, like the cork which is printed with ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal Music’, the stelvin which has a metallic gold music note on its top, and of course the names of the vintages themselves like Pipe Down, and The Mischief. The labels have even made their way into an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and into Tanya Scholes’ The Art & Design of Contemporary Wine Labels.
Based on the recommendations of a trusted wino – er – afficionado, who turned us onto Organized Crime winery in the first place, we sampled some excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the tasting room (Krystyna’s former dining room), and took home several bottles of the 2008 Riesling.
But the story didn’t end there, at least not for us. Intrigued by the story, we decided to look for the site of the churches in question, following the trail to the little village of Jordan about 5 kilometers away. After all, these little spontaneous explorations are what make travelling more fun.
A tiny little town, it was easy to find Jordan’s museum, behind which we located the former site of one of the churches. Unfortunately, the only evidence left of the church is the graveyard adjacent to it (full points to the gentleman who lived to be 90 years and 4 days old!), and a plaque that validated the Mennonite history of the area. In place of the church was the Jacob Fry house, an 1815 home which gave us a glimpse into the life of its former occupants, as we walked through it, inhaling the scent of old wood-smoke infused floorboards.
Despite the fact that we didn’t get to see the infamous churches on the Organized Crime labels, the trip itself was a delight, like the 2008 Riesling we brought home – dry (like Krystyna’s wit), with lots of legs (like our journey) and a smooth finish (at the Trius Jazz concert). As wines or brands go, it doesn’t get much more authentic than this.
TIP: If you are planning a trip to the Niagara wine region, be sure to visit this Beamsville Bench area. Flanked by vineyards and cherry farms with views of Lake Ontario in the distance, the wineries here are small, like Organized Crime Winery, and they exhibit the distinct personality of both the local terroir, and the local people who make the wine. (Oh, and the wines are very good, too!)