A few weeks ago, I wrote about celebrating the new Brooklyn wine trail. Both Brooklyn Oenology and Brooklyn Winery, featured in the story, were relatively unscathed by Hurricane Sandy. But Red Hook Winery is located right over the water, nearly at the end of Pier 41, and the facility was completely exposed with zero buffers from high winds. When Sandy brought 11- to 16-foot storm surge waves, the winery was pummeled. The Andrea Gail in The Perfect Storm comes to mind.
The first heartbreaking report on the damage came from Christopher Nicolson, head winemaker, through an interview given soon after the storm to Nona Brooklyn. He forecasted a near total loss after winds blew planters through the glass doors, and waves swept through the winery, flooding the space with five feet of water. The flood ruined electrical equipment like forklifts and pumps, scattered barrels of aging wines, and soaked and smashed hundreds of bottles as though Charlie Sheen and the devil teamed up for a Bacchanalia.
I visited RHW a week later to see if any hope had been dug up from the debris, spending last Friday with Christopher Nicolson and winemaker Abe Schoener. I can confirm that, sadly, the winery will not be hosting tastings and tours anytime soon.
RHW is still without power. They are working without light and heat (and it’s cold with that winter wind blowing off the water). Lots of renovation will be required, including the removal of several walls and its recently refurbished bathrooms, to flush out trapped water. To make matters worse, insurance won’t cover loss from flooding.
But for all the destruction, Abe and Chris feel blessed. The Red Hook Initiative sent dozens of volunteers daily to assist in clean-up; Luciano Racca of Domencio Clerico wines in Piedmont, Italy, spent three days volunteering after his NYC appointments to promote his own wines were cancelled; and staff from Terroir wine bar lent a hand.
If RHW is unable to salvage any of their current vintage, numerous offers showing support and solidarity among the winemaking community have rolled in: a winery in Oregon offered a vintage worth of juice; Hermann Wiemer up in the Finger Lakes offered juice, equipment, and general assistance in hopes that RHW won’t have to go a season without making wine.
But Abe and Chris now believe the wine gods kept an eye on their babies after all. After tasting through the wines, some stored in sealed stainless steel tanks, others in puncheons, they found much of the juice alive, in excellent condition. Ironically, the lack of heat coupled with the chilly air might have saved a lot of their wine. Assuming the final product is technically sound and they are happy with the results, the other caveat which is the caveat to saving any part of the vintage, is whether the EPA tests will conclude all or some of the wines are OK for sale, or instead deem them “salvaged” from a flood or contaminated. Nobody knows that answer yet, so in the interim, the plan is to keep calm, carry on, and make wine.
So that’s what they did for four days in the dark, cold winery. Last Friday, I helped drain tanks by gravity flow and we sent North Fork Chardonnay into barrels with a donated pump. The wines I tasted were fresh and good, but mere caterpillars propelled into wooden cocoons where they will lay for the next year, hopefully to emerge with wings and an EPA stamp of approval.
Abe seemed optimistic, an attitude both inspiring and, frankly, dumbfounding given the circumstances. When asked the best way to support the winery, the answer from the entire team was a definitive BUY WINE. RHW managed to save a large share of bottles that didn’t get wet and have updated its website to inform customers of their offerings, with orders to be placed via phone or e-mail and then shipped out. For alternative retail sources, check USQ Wines, Brooklyn Wine Exchange, Acker-Merrall, and Amagansett Wines. Several local restaurants are extending support through glass and bottle sales; visit Gilt, Terroir (multiple locations), and Arthur on Smith for a drink and a bite.
Red Hook Winery lost a lot, and, without insurance coverage, it might be enough to put them out of business. But for now, with spirit, community support, and a little luck from vinous deities, the odds are looking better that RHW will be around another vintage.
Lauren Mowery is a wine and travel writer based in NYC. She blogs at Chasing the Vine.