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"This is where the grapes come in," Michael Dorf says, gesturing to a loading dock. He's slight and intense, darting around his 21,000-square-foot loft space in the West Village. "The de-stemming and crushing will happen here; the barrel room is downstairs, temperature-controlled. We'll have a Murray's cheese and charcuterie expert full-time. Six months from now, we'll be eating cheese and drinking wine right here."
Just a few blocks away, in the basement of Vintage New York in Soho, Robert Ransom ducks into a small side room, where seven oak barrels are stacked on top of each other next to a large stainless-steel tank. "This," he says, pointing around the perimeter of the room, "is a licensed winery."
Dorf and Ransom couldn't be more different. Dorf was the founder of the Knitting Factory and is now a freelance music producer and entrepreneur. Ransom owns Rivendell Winery in the Hudson Valley, as well as the Vintage New York tasting room and retail shop, where he also makes a small amount of wine. Both men are part of a movement to bring winemaking, and wine tasting, to the city.
Urban winemaking isn't quite the oxymoron it seems. Wine has been made in local homes since the 1600s, when the Dutch planted New York's first vines on Manhattan. Even now, in some Italian neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx, nearly every basement harbors a few bottles of homemade wine.
When most people hear of New York City wine, their first question is: "But is it good?" It can be—just as good as Long Island wine or Finger Lakes wine, because that's where the grapes generally come from. No one's actually growing grapes commercially in the city (although a vineyard on Staten Island is in the works). But once you get your hands on the grapes, you can make wine just about anywhere.
This means that a woman working alone in a converted Brooklyn warehouse is just as much a winemaker as a guy on a thousand acres of vineyards in Napa. We think of wine as an agricultural product because it's made from grapes, but no one does a double take over Brooklyn Brewery or Six Point Ales, and hops aren't grown in the city. A winery is just a place where wine is made—and since a younger, urban population is drinking more wine than ever before, it makes sense to bring the vino to the drinkers.
Allie Shaper started out working at Rivendell, and then struck out on her own in 2005 with Brooklyn Oenology, headquartered in an old warehouse in Greenpoint. Last year, Shaper founded the quixotic-sounding Urban Winery Alliance, a fledgling group that she hopes will become the promotional arm of New York City's wineries and provide resources for its winemakers. Currently, the alliance has three member wineries: Vintage New York, Manhattan Meadery (which will release its first honey wine this fall), and Brooklyn Oenology.
"I wanted to create an urban winery that relates to the phenomenon of Brooklyn as a cultural, artistic, and industrial center," Shaper says. Brooklyn Oenology's bottles feature paintings by local artists on the labels, which are designed to peel off smoothly so that you can save the artwork after the wine is done.
Shaper has just come out with her first two wines: a 2005 Merlot and a Chardonnay, both of which were made with grapes from the North Fork of Long Island. The Chardonnay is crisp like green apples, and maybe a little too sharp. The Merlot, though, is darkly rich and plummy. They can be tasted and bought at Vintage New York.
Although Brooklyn Oenology is headquartered in Greenpoint, Shaper's grapes are grown on Long Island, and for now she produces her wine at a facility on Long Island. (She'll have a winemaking facility in Brooklyn in about two years.) So what, I ask her, makes it Brooklyn oenology?
"Technically, Brooklyn is part of Long Island," she points out. "But it will always be Long Island wine, because that's where the grapes are from—although I'm looking for a city park to take over," she adds jokingly.
Asked the same question, Ransom gets a little testy on Shaper's behalf: "It's about bringing a tasting-room experience into the city for New York wines. Is it a marketing gimmick? It's very much about marketing, because it's about placing your wine in a heavily trafficked location. Is it a gimmick? Putting a toad on your label is gimmicky, too. Is it made from toads?"
Bridge Urban Winery has been making wine on Long Island for seven years, but last month it opened a branch in Williamsburg. The space is post-industrial chic, all exposed brick, rough-hewn wood, and hand-blown glass lanterns. Oak barrels are stacked up to the ceiling, and a stainless-steel tank sits in one corner. After this fall's harvest, winemaker Paul Wegimont expects to be making wine here.
"The whole idea," says co-owner Greg Sandor, "is to bring the wine to the table, the vineyard to the town. It should be simple: Wine is meant to be an everyday, enjoyable thing. I mean, at most places you get your $14 glass of red in a big, bulbous glass, and half the time you don't like it that much, and it's like, 'Fuck.' It makes you want to go to the pub, where they let you have a taste before you buy."