About a month ago, I climbed the steps to the roof of Buidling 275 at Brooklyn Navy Yard. Before me was a blinding white rooftop surface, populated with 42 rectangular planters, inside of which five varietals of Bordeaux red grapes grew. On the space’s Eastern edge, a few picnic tables were shaded by a tent—necessary that day; the sun was direct and unrelenting—and Devin Shomaker, co-founder of Rooftop Reds, the world’s and therefore (probably) the galaxy’s first commercially-viable rooftop winery, was talking to a couple dozen eager tourists.
“Everyone is eating locally, and supporting local farmers and producers,” said Shomaker, 32, who had to project his voice significantly in order to reach all the ears on the breezy exposed surface (though he looked comfortable while he was at it). “But,” Shomaker continued, “it’s a challenge to find a great restaurant that carries local reds—and one way to do that is to bring vines here that make a quality bottle of wine.”
Which, of course, is what Shomaker and his co-founder Chris Papalia have managed to do before anyone else in the country, or universe—as far as we know—has thought or figured out how to do the same. Shomaker, who had previously worked in sales and started two businesses with his brother in China, decided what he really wanted to do was make and serve wine to others—and that he also wanted to live and do that in New York. He enrolled himself at Finger Lakes Community College, the only one of its kind with a viticulture (the study of grape cultivation) and horticology (the study and business of growing plant) program.
“I started the whole business while I was in school,” Shomaker told me while sipping on some cider, of all things (the carbonation was good for his speaking voice, he informed me), which he had snuck from the adjacent tasting room. “I launched a successful pilot project on Kickstarter and secured a rooftop space in Brooklyn Navy Yard, set up the nursery system, and all these vines”—he gestured behind him, to the expanse of leafy lobed greens, pouring out of woody vines—“grew up since then; I established all of these vines before I graduated.”
It was not something that anyone told him he could, nor even should do. But, to be clear, no wine from these vines have been made yet. Shomaker secured the rooftop space in 2014; the grapes, however, that grow inside of his planters will not be wine-ready until their fourth growing season—or, next October. At that time, Shomaker and his staff will harvest the world’s very first rooftop red grape crop and make out of it one barrel of wine, or about 30 cases of hyper-local Bordeaux red varietals.
Earlier, Shomaker gathered us around one of the planters, and plucked a tightly-bound fruit cluster off a trellis. Its berries were deep purple and miniature; one by one, Shomaker removed a grape and placed it into an eager hand. “These will be New York City’s first vintage grapes,” Shomaker declared, as if he were Rafiki announcing the newest cub, the future king of the land. “Did everyone like the berry?” I was not sure what to expect before I popped on in my mouth—whether or not wine grapes tasted detectably different from table grapes. And they didn’t, really. Their sweetness was just more compact; overall they were refreshing, slightly tart, and smooth.
Because Rooftop Reds is located farther south than New York State’s other wine growing regions—the North Fork on Long Island and the Finger Lakes region, where Shomaker currently works with another winery (his investor), Point of the Bluff Vineyards, to produce interim Rooftop Red-brand wines—his Navy Yard rooftop grapes grow for three and five weeks longer than those regions to the North. Shomaker’s rooftop grape accumulation is on track with the California Sonoma Coast; plus, he adds, “The white rooftop increases photosynthetic activity by five to seven percent.”
Until Rooftop Reds gets its own production facility next fall (hopefully across the street from building 295, on Flushing Avenue), Shomaker has been experimenting with Point of the Bluff to make some outré reds and rosés. Shoemaker connected with Point of the Bluff while he was still in school, and, actually, on a date with a girl; the date didn’t turn into anything but, while on a boat together, he spotted the pristine vineyards up on a hill, boldly walked up to the house on the land, and announced he wanted to bring his entire class around to tour their grounds. Two years later, and the person who answered that door and Shomaker are business partners.
“We work with them to set the tone for our wines,” Shomaker explained. “I wanted to make the ‘anti-industry rosé, anti-Provence style, not as salmon-pink,” he explained. And that is what they have done: Rooftop Reds’ rosé can be paired with a barbecue pork sandwich, said Shomaker. “It’s a manly rosé, and yeah, it worked out; it’s our number one seller.”
It’s that attitude—call it the “y’all are crazy for telling me what I can’t do,” attitude—that allowed Shomaker to pursue the rooftop winery in the first place. As mentioned, no other commercially viable rooftop winery exists in the world. Even Shomaker’s professors at Finger Lakes Community College doubted that establishing one was possible, and were against his grand plans.
“I was that crazy kid in school,” said Shomaker. “Everyone was like, ‘I’m going to New Zealand,’” post-graduation, “and I was like, ‘I’m moving to Brooklyn.’” Plus, his professors were not so into him focusing his curriculum on a business. “But I was like, ‘I”m paying you guys to help me learn this shit so I can do interesting and creative things,” Shomaker reasoned. So, he forced it. He did his own research; made cold calls; secured the space and the investors, and, despite all odds, made a rooftop winery in Brooklyn. “By graduation,” said Shomaker, “they were all on my team.”
At that point, we were standing near the western edge of the roof; the Afropunk Festival, below us and across the street on Flushing Avenue, was in full swing. The late afternoon sun hung heavy in the sky. Other people on the tour were lying on hammocks, sipping wine from the tasting room. It was quite pleasant.
“The hardest part about it is that I’m around people all of the time, and they’re having a great time,” said Shomaker—which, of course, is why he got into wine making in the first place—but meanwhile, this great time is also his job. “I’ve been on a 110 hour-per week-schedule,” he tells me, clutching his cider. “I don’t know what my friends are up to. I haven’t connected with them in a year. You don’t know what serious sacrifice is until you’re at it.”
But of course, barriers like that—professors and students who told him he was crazy; a complete lack of precedent to teach him how to build a rooftop winery—had never stopped him from pursuing a vision. He was going to make wine, dammit, and he was going to do it on a rooftop in Brooklyn, because that is what he wanted to do, and where he wanted to live.
Come to think of it, Shomaker is not so unlike the grapes he is growing—the kind that we had tasted earlier. Their sugars were condensed; their berries were robust; their root system was woody and sturdy, as it should be, and they continued to reproduce, and make more wine grapes, even though—maybe—it was bit premature for them to be doing so.
“They’re like teenagers,” Shomaker said of the still-young grapes. “They’re accumulating sugar right now—they wanna reproduce, but they probably shouldn’t.” Still, there was no denying it: they tasted good. What did “shouldn’t” matter? And next October, when he is harvesting those grapes, and we are drinking, say, a Petite Bordeaux, or Malbec, or Cabernet Sauvingon Brooklyn varietal wine that is made from them, we’ll be thanking those healthy grapes, and Shomaker, for being so stubborn.
All images by Sasha Turrentine