Inside the Brooklyn Winery, a Modern Update on Williamsburg’s Industrial Past

Photos by Jane Bruce

The fingerprints of America’s great industrial past are all over Williamsburg, which was once home to some of the largest factories in the nation, giants like Standard Oil, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, and Amstar and Domino, plus smaller ventures: shipyards, breweries, refineries, mills, foundries, and printing presses (famously, the US publisher of Alice in Wonderland and The Origin of Species). But over the last twenty years, whatever remained of those businesses has wrapped up and, instead, Williamsburg now has an international reputation for its nightlife, hotels, luxury condos, and shopping.

Yet there’s a relatively new business on North 8th and Roebling Streets—the Brooklyn Winery—that continues the manufacturing tradition, producing an impressive 8,000 cases of award-winning wine per year. “The space has a pretty rich history,” explains co-founder Brian Leventhal. “In the early 1900s, it used to be a creamery and then, throughout the last hundred years, we’ve learned that it also was a pickle factory, a paper factory, some type of warehouse import operation, and a car dealership that had a full mechanic component to it.”

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When Brian and co-founder John Stires found the place via a Craigslist ad in January 2010, it was a “kind of art gallery turned into nightclub” that had just seen the previous tenant get evicted. “We inherited all of the problems and the issues that were here,” says Brian. But, even still, adds John, it was the ideal spot. “It was built out a lot more than the other spaces that we were looking at, which were more straight-up manufacturing warehouses. This space had some hospitality infrastructure in it, like bathrooms, air conditioning, and an area where there was a kitchen. So it was stuff that we could work with.”

Today, Brian and John have turned the 7,500-square-foot factory building into an exquisite hybrid that hosts about eighty-five weddings and over 100 other corporate and social events per year, while simultaneously bringing in over 100 tons of grapes that get squeezed, pressed, and finessed into Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and other varietals, some with some meaningful names—”Driggs,” “North Fork Blend,” and “Babs” (named after Brian’s mother).

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When I first arrive at the winery, John is working outside of the two-story building on a ladder, making some adjustments to the storefront, which has a few windows, a pair of tall wooden doors, and an assortment of large potted plants. You could hardly tell that there’s a wine bar inside, not to mention a wholesale winery operation.

The low-key approach is completely fitting with Brian and John’s aesthetic—which seems like a neat, nuanced nod to the past. “Everything here is salvaged and re-purposed,” says Brian. There are table tops that were once languishing in scrap yards (“riddled with nails”), legs of old sewing machines that are seeing a second life, machine parts that now double as coffee tables, and a slate chalkboard from the Prohibition Era. All of this makes Brooklyn Winery new and not new—an urban winery that thrives in the heart of a neighborhood which has recently earned comparisons to the Meatpacking District and as a “Disneyland for adults.”

Eight years ago, Brian and John were working at an Internet startup when they began attending classes at a wine making facility in New Jersey with their co-workers. “We had no previous knowledge of wine making so everything that we were doing there you assumed it was the proper way of doing things,” says Brian. “But it was about having fun more than anything else.” The first year, they simply had a first good time and considered it to be a “nice social experience.”

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But, says John, after “we had gone through two complete vintages and we had already started a third there, we began working on this idea of bringing a winery to Brooklyn.” At the time, they noted that there was “nearly complete lack of wineries in Brooklyn” but that “New Yorkers are obsessed with all things local.” In the worst of times (at the start of the Great Recession), they decided to quit their jobs to follow their hunch.

“Brooklyn was becoming that exciting borough to live in and to start a business,” says John, “and we thought Williamsburg was the perfect area with the manufacturing that they have here. It was rezoned, but it still had manufacturing pockets in it.”

While Brian worked on the “the capital raise and the business plan and the financial model and things like that,” says John, he looked at the logistics: What are all the legalities behind it? What do we need to get done? What are all the different government agencies that we need to work with? Ultimately, to find the space, they resorted to just driving around Brooklyn—”because there were signs up everywhere saying that there’s places for rent”—passing through Gowanus and Sunset Park before settling on Williamsburg and taking to Craiglist.

“Brian was out trying to raise the money so we could actually sign the lease and put a down payment on the security and the first month’s rent,” says John, while he was negotiating with the broker, who was holding the place somewhat for ransom. “Usually, the landlord pays the broker’s fee in a commercial deal, but we had to pay some of that, which was unfortunate,” adds John. They used the “the last bit of [their] money” to secure the lease and close the deal.

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What they were faced with though, was with an Olympian overhaul—the whole space had to be gutted and rebuilt—before they could embrace any Dionysian leanings. They opened up the airy front area and bar first before constructing two of the side rooms that now mostly serve as venues for corporate gatherings, weddings, and private parties. “None of this wall area was up, so we actually enclosed this space,” adds John as he’s showing me the Parlor Room. “It was really only like a couple of months afterwards.”

During wine making season, to the surprise of tourists visiting the neighborhood, a forklift laden with grapes comes rolling down North 8th Street, takes a hard right in through the rolling door, and goes up a ramp that is usually hidden by wooden beams—”a tongue-in-groove system, where every plank can come out,” says Brian—to unload its 1,500 pound pallets of grapes in the Harvest Room.

The Harvest Room, when Brian and John show it to me, is quiet, clean, and mostly made of metal. “Basically, this is where all the wet work is done,’ explains John. “It’s busiest during the months of the end of September, October, and November when we get all the grapes in and we start the fermentation process; we’re pressing.”

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Then, the wine moves into the Barrel Room, a darker, cooler space that is kept at just under sixty degrees in the summer and houses around 300 barrels. “Wine needs time to age,” says Brian. “There’s a lot of actual chemistry behind it and why that needs to happen, but a good wine takes time.” The winery ages all of their red wine in oak barrels and some of the whites. Other whites get placed in “tanks for the majority of their lives,” says Brian.

He adds that, “Fluctuations are the worst thing possible for wine so we really have to maintain constant temp. There’s a lot of just kind of monitoring work.” We watch as Chuck Gergley, the Assistant Wine Maker, tops a barrel by pouring in more wine from a large beaker “to the absolute brim, because we don’t actually want any oxygen to get in,” says Brian.

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In the end, the barrels hold around 90,000 bottles of wine that all get produced by hand. “It’s just a labor-intensive job,” says John, “but we have some very dedicated staff who comes in, and we hire them seasonally.”

After locking down the lease and finishing the last of the construction, the winery was up and fully running in April 2012. At that time, says Brian, they “definitely saw signs” of changes in the neighborhood. “The amount of new buildings, high-end, full-luxury buildings being built in north Williamsburg and literally just within a two to three block radius of our space—I don’t think there’s any place in New York City that can compare with that,” he says.

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“Then you add on the amount of new restaurants and coffee shops and every other type of business that comes with that residential growth and you just see more people walking down the street. You see this migration from Manhattan to here that’s happening,” Brian adds. He’s noticed that there’s many more young families in the neighborhood, who started out with “babies a few years ago, and now those babies are starting to grow up and you see a lot of toddlers.”

John adds, with a laugh, “We had to put a baby changing table in one of our bathrooms.” And yet, the three of us are standing in urban winery in Brooklyn, as much a factory as one operating a hundred years ago on the same street (although, I imagine, much quieter and safer). In a way, the winery is forging new ground—including the toddlers, their parents, and a whole different crowd of people in the production process.

When it comes their product, Brian and John have also been unafraid to explore, especially with orange wines, which “are made with white wine grapes made in a red-wine style whereby the juice ferments with the grape skins,” says Brian. “Typically, white wine is made whereby the grape juice ferments without the contact of the grape skins.” Thus far, the orange wines have gotten a good response and Brian and John are happy. Even the more traditional grape growers in the Finger Lakes region, where the winery sources some of their fruit, are “starting to make more wines for down in New York City,” says Brian, a change that is reminiscent, in a way, of Williamsburg’s former industrial influence.

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