Red Hook, as most Brooklynites know, is teeming with secret little nooks and crannies, mysteries hidden behind warehouses, centuries-old history lurking just beyond chainlink fences. Red Hook Winery, one of the neighborhood’s more peculiar and enchanting haunts is perched inconspicuously along the banks of the notoriously choppy Buttermilk Channel, a quick walk from Valentino Pier. Make your way through the gravel-strewn parking lot, down a canal-lined narrow pathway and through a pair of heavy, wrought iron doors and slip into the winery’s airy, relaxed tasting room where you can easily pass an afternoon soaking up expertly crafted New York State booze.
Red Hook Winery is housed in a 19th century pier originally built as a shipping warehouse, and the structure’s dusty, industrial flooring, repurposed furniture, Christmas lights-strewn ceiling and exposed brick mirror the winery’s modern and distinctly Brooklyn approach to winemaking–a veritable melting pot of influences, aesthetics and tastes coming together to produce an incredibly diverse fleet of delicious reds, whites and roses.
“We were opened in 2008 by Brooklyn native named Marc Snyder,” began Felipe, a Red Hook Winery staff member who led me on a tasting and tour during a recent visit. “He started this in conjunction with two very close friends who are also winemakers in California, Robert Foley and also Abe Schoener from The Scholium Project, two guys used to making very different wines.”
Though Snyder came out of a long tenure in the music business–as a sound and acoustics expert, he’s worked closely with the likes of Billy Joel and Peter Frampton–he’s no stranger to the local liquor industry. His distribution company, Angels’ Share, has been trucking in the good drink from around the globe since 2005, specializing in small “garage” wineries in California as well as cult producers like his Red Hook co-conspirators, Robert and Abe. Together, these three guys, along with Brooklyn-based resident winemaker Christopher Nicolson, are on a quest to educate New Yorkers about their state’s often overlooked and underappreciated bounty, to “work with a liked region and make it loved,” as their mission statement reads.
The emphasis on celebrating local products is apparent in each facet of Red Hook Winery’s practice. “We work with all New York State grapes, about 85 percent from the North Fork of Long Island, and 15 percent from the Finger Lakes,” continued Felipe, passing out glasses and setting a platter of Stinky Bklyn cheese at the table’s center. “We’ve done very little with the Hudson Valley, but we’re very interested in working with all the regions of New York, even Niagara, Lake Erie, just kind of seeing what all these different places have to offer.”
As a craft beer drinker, I most appreciated Red Hook’s laid back attitude and relaxed approach–a philosophy with the potential to flip wine culture’s perceived pretension on its hoighty toighty head. Yet this appears to be a very East Coast mindset, one that took some adjust for Red Hook’s Napa Valley imports. “At first, because of their backgrounds, Abe and Bob weren’t bottling anything that wasn’t a reserve wine, something really structured, really intense, and it got to a point where we were only really bottling reserves–which is not only cost-prohibitive for a lot of people, but it’s also that you don’t always necessarily want a very serious wine,” Felipe explained, pouring several ounces of Salt Crush, a 2014 Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc blend into each drinker’s glass. “So, for 2013 and 2014 vintages, because we made a lot more–we lost most of our 2011 and 2012 vintages in Hurricane Sandy–we decided to experiment more, not fit into these narrow parameters. Christopher, our resident winemaker who’s here everyday, is making more and more of the wines, and he trained in Italy, so he has more of a table wine approach to winemaking. We still make some bigger, serious wines, but we think a lot of our wines should be approachable and very drinkable.”
And drinkable it was. The Salt Crush was a fantastic starter wine, with bright fruity notes of melon and citrus, smoothed over by a soft, slightly sweet finish. This summer sipper would fare just as well alongside some tacos in Far Rockaway as it would poolside in the Hamptons. And while its taste evokes a sense of careless fun, the wine’s name harkens back to a pretty dismal period in Red Hook Winery’s recent past.
“See that salt line there?” Felipe asked, pointing to a white, five foot mark that ringed the tasting room’s eastern wall. “That line is from the flood water. We lost pretty much everything that was in the winery. Some wines survived–we just bottled up the last of our 2011 and 2012’s, but most of it was gone, including all the grapes we had just gotten in from the harvest. At that time, we didn’t own a bottling line, so it was all in barrels. If we had, we would have just bottled everything and gotten it out of there, but we just didn’t have that luxury. But, really,” he smiled sheepishly, “it was kind of a good thing, because if we had had one, we probably would have lost it anyway.”
Despite Sandy’s devastation, Red Hook Winery bounced back better than ever, and even bought their own bottling line which improves production speeds and maximizes output. Still, at just 1,200 cases per year, Red Hook Winery occupies the tiniest end of the winemaking spectrum, placing them in a league not with the big guys in Napa or France, but comfortably in line with a cohort of New York City-based nano-breweries and artisanal, family-run distilleries where quality, creativity and individuality often trump profit.
“I worked at very small wineries in Europe and they were making 10,000 cases, you know? And that’s small, but we’re like, super small,” marveled Felipe, pouring us yet another round from their astounding lineup of nearly fifty handcrafted bottles. “We get this questions often, like, ‘Why do you make all these different wines?’ We probably shouldn’t, you know, because each wine requires such individual attention, but it’s kind of fun for us to work with so many different grapes from so many different vineyards–there are just so many layers to these projects.”
Red Hook Winery; 174 – 204 Van Dyke Street (Pier 41), Red Hook