As Devin Shomaker and I pull up to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in his silver Kia, he starts pointing out what he is proudly calling “Alcohol Row.” On the other side of Kings County Distillery, and high in the clouds with its neighbor, Brooklyn Grange, is where Shomaker spends most of his time tending his 200-plus grapevines for his new company called Rooftop Reds. “It’s a thing, we’re going to make it happen,” he says with a grin.
We take a freight elevator in building #275 to the top, and climb another flight of stairs to a humble, nearly blinding-white rooftop with baby grapevines neatly lined up. At the right angles, you can catch the Manhattan skyline, but Shomaker actually likes the views of downtown Brooklyn a tiny bit better. It feels a bit more at home to him, especially because the borough gave birth to his rooftop vineyard business idea. Shomaker tested out his idea of a rooftop garden, his thesis project for graduating from his viticulture program, on his brother’s rooftop in Windsor Terrace in 2013. When asked how a modern-day landlord would possibly agree to such a venture, Shomaker replied with a laugh: “He’s Italian. He was like, ‘wine!'”
True, history shows that winemakers in Brooklyn aren’t exactly a new novelty. Hobby winemaking, much like beekeeping or homebrewing, finds its roots back in the city’s first immigrants, much like his Italian landlord. Still, Shomaker joins the ranks of other Brooklyn winemakers, like Brooklyn Oenology and Brooklyn Winery, aiming to be a part of the borough’s drinking landscape.
Shoemaker found his way to winemaking after a series of IT consulting jobs that failed to inspire him. He grew up in Washington D.C. and was less than enthused by the corporate lifestyle; so he moved to China for a few months to regain his bearings. He founded a company, a swim school, with his brother, and came back to the states again, searching. He started working at a wine bar, Screwtop Wine Bar in Arlington, Va., that peaked his interest in winemaking. Starting on his second whim, he looked at MBA programs and viticulture programs before choosing Finger Lakes Community College to get a degree from their two-year Viticulture and Wine Technology program.
Once he started school, he found his big idea: a rooftop vineyard. It took convincing of his teachers that such an idea was feasible, but once he was inspired, he couldn’t be stopped. He launched the Kickstarter for Rooftop Reds during his last semester, and raised more than $16,000 to turn his project into a business.
Now, Rooftop Reds is just about ready for its official New York City debut. The one to three-year old vines will eventually be replanted into standing soil, into steel-made, urban planter boxes (that look like a window planter box in giant proportions) into rows. It took three different prototypes for Shomaker and his team to create just the right planter box for a rooftop vineyard. Then he’ll create a trellis from a steel attachment to mimic the same hanging vines you’d see in the vineyards just due west in Long Island, or northwest in the Finger Lakes. Then, Rooftop Reds will be officially open to the public for happy hours and “hammock reservations” (because what young professionals in Brooklyn actually need are wind-down hammock hours with a glass of wine in hand).
That being said, the current grapes on the vines won’t be ready for a few more years. Harvest for the 2-year old vines will begin next year, and then of course comes the fermentation, bottling, and so on and so on. The first “city-made vintage,” Shomaker calls it, won’t be ready until 2016. Still, Shomaker and his team won’t leave you completely in the dry–the team is still producing wines out at Miles Wine Cellars, where they’ve made a steel-fermented chardonnay, a cabernet franc rose, and a traminette-riesling blend. The wines are already on sale at Corkscrew Wines, Wino(t), and Windsor Wine Merchants.
Still, walking through the rows of plants on top of the Navy Yard rooftop, it’s clear that Shomaker feels at home in the dichotomy of a urban and agricultural landscape. The rooftop at the Navy Yard has actually been perfect for growing vines: few pests, great aerodynamics in the wind. He gets excited about his new biodynamic herbicide to prevent pests, and the recycled glass in the top soil he designed. His favorite part of his work day, among his many phone calls and emails, is watering his plants at 9 a.m. every day–it’s his “feel good moment” of every day. It’s cool to be a part of the DIY, entrepreneurial movement in Brooklyn, he says. “I respect that kind of initiative,” Shomaker says. “There is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to making a business work.” And wine, too.
Join Rooftop Reds on Wednesday, June 22 for its launch party at Kings County Distillery, complete with samples of Rooftop Reds’ first vintage, Kings County whiskey, and a pig roast.