You know where people do not think good wine is made? Brooklyn. But those people have not been to Brooklyn Winery, in the heart of Williamsburg—North Eighth Street between Driggs and Roebling, Williamsburg centrale. Opened in 2010, Brooklyn Winery now cranks out 100,000 bottles of wine (reds and whites) from inside an old dance club, every year.
The reason people think wine that isn’t made in California or Argentina or France for example is terrible, is because they don’t believe grapes or winemakers who are not from those regions are capable of producing delicious, fermented vitis vinifera—the only species of grape that makes wine. Its fruit is much smaller and sweeter than the variety you purchase at a grocery store; and while native to Europe, numerous varieties now grow around the world. New York State is one of those places. The Finger Lakes region (which specializes in white wine grapes) and the North Fork of Long Island produce a significant amount of the winery’s fruit, from Riesling, to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and more. Long Island’s annual output is 100 million bottles.
But back to that stigma, the one that says good wine only comes from certain places: It’s true that people do not necessarily hear the words “Finger Lakes” and think, “pass the wine.” Even in North Fork—New York’s equivalent of California’s wine country—its Pinot Grigios and Merlots are not exactly sought after internationally (though both areas are a madhouse with wine tours every summer). However, those who lift their noses at New York wines should know that great wine is not just the result of the best terroir, whose wines are made on-site.
At base what is needed are well-developed, healthy grapes and highly knowledgeable winemakers. Indeed, New York can grow some very high quality grapes. In turn, these grapes can perhaps be manipulated by people who grew up learning the ins-and-outs of wine production—people like Brooklyn Winery’s head winemaker Conor McCormack, who grew up in Northern California, worked on a vineyard there, and also made wine at an urban winery in San Francisco before moving to New York. He is intimately familiar with boutique wineries, personalities, and grapes from the West Coast, giving him a further edge as he heads up production at Brooklyn Winery, our borough’s finest.
But, perhaps you’re still saying to yourself, Wait! Brooklyn has its own winery? Why didn’t I know that? Well, that’s partially because company co-founder Brian Leventhal has relied mostly on word-of-mouth to bring people in, so the business has existed as something of an insider’s secret—the kind you want to share because it’s so good, but are eager to keep quiet so that nothing gets ruined. Of course, there are plenty of people who do know about it: Inside, there is a full kitchen, a full bar with tasting bar included, a dining room, an event space which hosts a ton of weddings every year, and a large production and storage facility, all under one roof. It does not, however, devolve into a hub of drunken revelers; even weddings are shut down by 11pm. And last week, I finally got to know it too.
Leventhal and his co-founder John Stires first met at a tech job in Manhattan—both on career paths they didn’t love. One day, another co-worker, who lived in Jersey, saw a billboard while driving that said “Make your own wine.” one day she walked into work and said, “Who wants to make wine?” Brian and John, was the answer.
For the next three years they took “a lot of complicated systems of mass transit that included the PATH train and a bus and a really long walk” to the New Jersey winery, which, according to Leventhal, “really catered to [local] Italian families and we were the weird young professionals from Manhattan and Brooklyn.” Still, they found they loved making wine, and figured other young professionals in Manhattan and Brooklyn would feel the same. “Every entrepreneur has their pain point that they experience in life to motivate them to do whatever they’re doing,” says Leventhal. “For us, it was traveling to New Jersey.”
Williamsburg became home to their venture not only because they loved the neighborhood—which they did—but also because there are only so many locations that can support the permits required to open a winery and tasting bar. What initially began as a production space with an educational, hands-on component and tasting bar eventual evolved into something very different. Today, Brooklyn Winery no longer engages customers to make their own wine, but they do give tours and educate. It became the more practical way to run the business.
While I was there, assistant winemaker Chuck Gergley was in the midst of making Pinot Noir with grapes from California that had arrived in November. A large stainless steel holding tank was filled with the fermented red liquid. Gergley was funneling it, through a very long pumping tube, into French Oack barrels.
Leventhal gave me a basic overview of the process: Grapes arrive to the winery from Long Island, upstate, and California in October and November. This year, the total shipment was 120 tons, which arived pristine, on the stem, and in trucks. In the production facility, a large industrial conveyer made in Italy takes the grapes, pushes them up an incline, and drops them into big tank where they’re de-stemmed. The Italian wonder spits just those out, filling garbage cans upon garbage cans of stem waste, which is then composted.
Next the grapes enter big plastic bins, and the fermentation process begins with the addition of yeast, which, eventually, “spits out booze.” The conversion process takes about two weeks. A mixtures of old skin and dead yeast is leftover, and must be separated from the liquid in another machine, essentially a very large strainer. Finally, that liquid is transferred to barrels: Voilà, young wine.
But it still needs to age, and mellow into drinkable form, which happens when the wine interacts with air. Since wood is porous, the aging happens in barrels, and acquires the flavor of the wood, most of which, at Brooklyn Winery, is French and Hungarian oak. The Pinot Noir currently being made doesn’t require as much aging, and will be bottled in August or September. Once in bottles—depending on the grape—it will set another two or three years before it is mellow enough to drink.
Back in the dining room, Leventhal has me taste six wines—three whites and three reds—to demonstrate the diversity of their product. That variety is something a standard winery, which can only grow so may varieties of grapes, can’t put out. All three whites I try, however, came from the same Finger Lakes Riesling grape. Flavor differences were derived from the aging methods applied to their fermented juices.
The first, for its entire life, stayed in the stainless steel bin—so it had no exposure to oxygen. It was crisp, acidic, and tropical; if stainless steel had a scent, it would smell like that—clean and sharp. The second was slightly darker in color because it was aged in a wooden barrel. Its notes were rounder, earthier. The third was nothing like the others, nor like anything I’d ever tasted: the Riesling Skin Fermented wine was, in fact, fermented with the skin still attached throughout the entire process, which gave it an orange hue. Conor McCormack said it had “honey-dried pineapple and black tea,” tasting notes.
On to the reds: A Pinot Noir—Los Carneros from Sonoma, California—was absolutely astounding: spicy, bright, fig-like and elegant. Its finish was a mile long. “A long finish is a signal of a really good wine,” says Leventhal. It was still finishing in my mouth after we’d discussed the wine’s wonders for a few minutes. In California, that bottle would go for 89 dollars; here it goes for $45. The second red was a blend from the North Fork, which sat in barrels for 22 months. It was woodier, and its alcohol content not as high. Leventhal called it “a great representation of a solid, well-made New York red wine.” Its finish was also significant, though not as outrageously lengthy. Finally, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma, their most popular selection. It tasted of lots of dark berries, and it was tannin-forward—all its molecules had not formed into nice long strings yet, a process that happens in aging—so it was still a young wine.
As we tasted, we also munched: Catfish that sat atop mustard greens and remoulade—delicious; a cheese plate; pumpkin seed brittle; duck paté that was mildly, incredibly, semi-sweet with cherries; and olives marinated in a mouthwatering citrus concoction. Head chef Michael Gordon had previously been head of banquets at the Mandarin Oriental.
At the end of it all, I felt I had—really, for the first time—succumbed to the love of wine. Brooklyn Winery is not precious or snobby. Leventhal is down to earth, and has built a team that is the same. In Brooklyn, service can feel uncaring or off-putting. Here, you feel like the people making the wine and food and hosting you are just people who like to eat and drink as well and, above all, care that you have fun doing the same. Here you can get the best of what wine offers—something sweet and fermented to drink—but also a significant amount more: the assurance that it was made 50 feet away from you, an education about how that happened, a tour if you’d like of equipment and process, a bar at which you can sit down and taste the wide variety that they produce, and a full dinner. Need to throw a party? Do it at their venue, with a wall of succulents dropped inside scoops from an old mill belt.
Looking back, six years after Leventhal and Stires fell for that Jersey wine, Leventhal says the experience has been nothing like he imagined. “It has a life of its own. It meanders along and you try to guide it the right way,” says Leventhal. Because he did not come up in the service industry, he feels no pressure to do things a certain way. His emphasis is on service—the real kind, not the one that says: “I tolerate you, barely.”
“People are coming here and spending their disposable income. At the end of the day, one thing our job has to be is to make people happy,” he says, sitting at a dining room picnic table. Behind us a tall guy walks in, and a big group sitting at a different picnic table all yell out his name like he’s Norm. “Here, people come home happy, and talk about us to others. What else can you do in life that is more fulfilling than that?”
For more information on Brooklyn Winery, visit here.