Conor McCormack of Brooklyn Winery Talks Urban Winemaking, the Science in the Glass & Why Winemakers Are So Beer Happy

Conor McCormack with founders Brian Leventhal (left) and John Stires (right).
Conor McCormack with founders Brian Leventhal (left) and John Stires (right).
photo by Ben Kilgust

Just a few blocks from Brooklyn Brewery is -- wait for it -- Brooklyn Winery. Or rather, Brooklyn Winery Urban Winery + Winemaking Center. The bespoke winery is the brainchild of Brian Leventhal and John Stires, who wanted to bring the experience of winemaking to Brooklynites. As the winery prepares to open officially, winemaker Conor McCormack explains the concept.

This the second DIY winery in the city. Is two a trend?

I think so. It's becoming a trend all across the States, and I think people are definitely interested in it. I recently came from one out in San Francisco where it was very, very popular and I think it's made its way to New York, and people are loving it.

How much involvement would one have as a customer?

You have as much involvement as you want, basically. So, we try to make it a highly customized experience where we're choosing everything from the varietal, the vineyards, how hot we're going to ferment, what kind of yeast to use, and for a lot of these I'm making recommendations for people and walking people through the process, but teaching them about every single process every single step of the way. So, it's highly customized.

Do you expect more novices or professionals to use this service?

We've actually had a blend of both. I'd say it generally leans more toward novices, people who are coming in to learn about winemaking and have the general experience of the entire process.

What do you think are some of the common misconceptions of wine?

As far as winemaking, it would be that it's glamorous. It's actually not. It's a lot of hard work. You can equate it to working in a kitchen where it's hard work -- especially during harvest season, it's very intense, long hours. A lot of cleaning, but then you get to blend that with the science portion and you're doing all the back end numbers, making sure the pH is where it should be. Things like that. I really enjoy it. That's why I do it.

What's been your biggest winemaking mistake?

I've seen much more than I've done. Mine was probably very, very early on. I was doing filtration and spent about eight hours filtering this wine through the improper filter. I had to go back and do it again. It was fine. It didn't really impact the flavor. It just beat up the wine a little bit. The aromatics disappear when you filter, but then they end up coming back. I've heard much worse stories like guys in the cellar who back up a forklift into a tank door and said tank door opens up and five thousand gallons of wine spill out on the floor. Much more disastrous.

What made you decide to become a winemaker?

I kind of fell into by accident, actually. Way back when I answered an ad to work a harvest, and since then I just totally fell in love with it. Kept on growing, learning more. The amount of learning you can do is a life-long process. It's just never-ending. And I just really, really enjoy it.

What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't making wine?

I don't know. Be a monkey astronaut.   A lot of winemakers tend to drink beer. Are you a beer drinker?

I am. I love drinking beer. The saying around California is, "It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine." It's the truth. I don't only drink beer at home. I do drink a lot of wine. Even bourbon. You come home from a long, hard day at work and a nice, cold beer is the most ideal choice sometimes.

Where do you get your fruit?

We source fruit. We don't own our own vineyards. We source some of it from here in New York, out in the North Fork of Long Island. We get Merlot and Cab Franc. And then we also get Chardonnay and Riesling from the Finger Lakes Region, which is upstate New York. And then a big bulk of our grapes actually comes from California, mainly Sonoma. It's a pretty involved shipping process in order to make the stuff from California. We have a system in there that there's no degradation or quality loss during the travels. The New York stuff we actually just pick up in a truck ourselves. Go up there very, very early in the morning and bring it back to the winery and start making wine.

What's your favorite varietal to work with?

It depends. I do like them all. I'm kind of on a Sangiovese kick at the moment. I really enjoy making that. Syrahs, though they're not as popular, but they're a lot of fun to make. I really love making Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon. Everything, really. It's kind of hard to just say one.

How will this year's vintage be?

Every vineyard, every appellation is a little bit different. As far as New York state fruit is looking, it's going to be the best vintage in 20, 30 years. At least that's what the growers are saying because it's been so warm for them. They're about two weeks ahead of schedule, which means they're going to have a lot of chances to get some very ripe flavors, flavor development. The fruit out in California is actually two weeks behind. They've experienced a cool year. We're getting our first fruit in around now.   In addition to your winery, there's going to be a wine bar as well. What will you carry exactly?

It's going to be a place where we can serve our own house wine. But as of year one, it's still in the process of being made. So in the meantime, we're bringing in a lot of other wines to showcase. We'll also be having a nice bottle list and are trying to get wines on tap. Sell bulk wines we can actually get, finish wine in larger amounts, and that way we can pass the savings on to customers. One of the coolest things about distribution here is I get full rein to come up with different blends and just really play around with stuff. Very similar to a microbrewery or brewpub where they have seasonal stuff. They do a small batch of something. It's in the bar until it's done and once it's gone that's it. Wait till the next time we put it together.

Do you frequent wine bars in the city?

I moved out here about three months ago, and I've been working so hard I haven't really been able to have much fun yet. I've been a few around the area like Custom American Wine Bar and Pinkerton and the DOC out in Brooklyn. I haven't ventured into the Manhattan wine bars yet, but I hear there are many good ones.

*Additional reporting by Melissa Maher.

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