“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.”
Drinking at Bridge feels more like a night out at a wine bar than a traditional tasting-room experience. You sit at the bar or a table and choose either a small taste of wine for about $5 each, or a flight of three tastes, which ranges from $14 to $18. The lights are low, which is unusual for a tasting room, and the staff doesn’t explain much about the wines unless prompted—although Sandor says that will change as the employees go through training. The wines come in tumbler-style glasses on butcher paper with the name inscribed. And these are usually very good, especially Bridge’s Merlot and Cabernet (buy a bottle of these for $20—actually a better deal than the tasting).
Bridge also offers small plates of food, including New York–made cheeses and a delicious white-bean-and-garlic dip. They stick to local food wherever possible, although the cured meats are from Italy.
The current interest in eating local is one of the forces behind urban winemaking. Says Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation: “People want to know where their wine and food comes from, and they want to meet the people who make it.”
Or maybe they want to make it themselves. That’s what Michael Dorf is banking on with City Winery, a sprawling custom-crush facility and wine bar that will open this fall in the West Village. Here, the customers themselves will be the winemakers, paying a hefty $5,000 to craft a barrel of wine.
The customers will choose the grape—pinot noir or Cabernet or Riesling, and so on. Then they’ll age and blend the wine, tasting it along the way. The result is about 250 bottles of wine per barrel. To make sure no one screws it up too badly, Dorf is hiring an expert winemaker to oversee the process.
City Winery is making good use of an antiquated federal law that says each citizen has the right to produce 200 gallons of wine for personal use (not for sale) each year—enough for about 14 glasses a day, which should be ample for most people.
“People ask me which I like better—getting Mick Jagger into the Knitting Factory or making wine,” laughs Dorf. “I think I might like the fruit better.”
Although the barrel ownership is expensive, Dorf says he’s already sold 50 of the first 200 slots—and he thinks that City Winery will be recession-proof. “But when one considers real-estate prices, it doesn’t make that much sense to open an winery in Manhattan,” he says. “You have to be a little meshugenah.”