Wineries usually summon images of gently sloping hills covered with twisting vines of grapes — not brownstones with garbage strewn out front. But wine can be made in any setting. Set just a short walk from the Bedford L stop, Brooklyn Winery (213 North 8th Street, Williamsburg; 347-763-1506) makes wines right in the heart of Brooklyn. Right now, it’s in the midst of harvest, which means you can watch the entire process from start to finish.
Opened in 2010 by Brian Leventhal and John Stires, the concept started off as an urban winery/DIY winemaking center. Conor McCormack, a Nor-Cal native and winemaker who had overseen similar concepts, was brought on board to put it all together.
The former warehouse and abandoned club was gutted from top to bottom. The floors were ripped up. Drainage systems were installed. The team had a five-month timeline, from when the lease was signed in May, to prepare the facility before the grapes arrived in the fall. “The key is having good floors with proper drainage,” says McCormack. “Wine is a living thing; it can spoil. Cleanliness is a big thing, especially in an urban setting.”
As the winery grew, something had to give. So the team ended the do-it-yourself winemaking in favor of concentrating on Brooklyn Winery’s own products and brands.
It now sources about 70 percent of its grapes from the state of New York; the other 30 percent come from California. Most of its white grapes (Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and some Cabernet Franc) are sourced from the Finger Lakes. Many reds (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot) hail from the North Fork of Long Island. Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and some Cabernet Sauvignon are shipped from McCormack’s home state.
McCormack loves the flexibility of creating products outside an official American Viticultural Area (AVA), or designated winemaking area. Because he’s not constrained by geography, he can work with whichever varietals he wants, from across the country. “It’s really fun for me as a winemaker, because there are so many regions I can work with,” says McCormack. “You don’t have to worry about degrading the region by bringing in California Cab. You would never do that if you were making wine in the Finger Lakes.”
His challenge, however, is dealing with the logistical issues that arise from being so far away from the vineyards. His grapes must be hand-picked and boxed into small containers (to ensure they don’t bruise the fruit) before they are loaded onto a refrigerated truck. Once they arrive, all the processing is done on the premises — right now he’s dealing with about 100 tons of grapes.
At the moment, there is a staff member at the facility nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ensuring the fruit is fermenting correctly. The wet room is currently filled with stainless-steel fermentation tanks, barrels holding wines, and big plastic vats filled nearly to the brim with grapes slowly converting into wine. The sugar and temperature are checked with a hydrometer three times daily, at 7 a.m., 4 p.m., and 11:30 p.m. — it’s a quality-control method that McCormack and his crew continually monitor from the moment the grapes are picked all the way through fermentation.
The process is conducted just as it would be at any winery in California or AVA, but McCormack believes the accessibility helps consumers really understand the art and science of winemaking. “The equipment and everything else is the same,” he says. “The plus side is so many people are close by. They can see it; it’s like pulling the veil back on this very mysterious process. We try to break that down without the snootiness.”
A native of one of the most highly respected wine-growing regions in the world, McCormack wasn’t sure what to expect when he arrived out east, but he was really impressed in the end. “I had contacts from California with growers in the Finger Lakes,” he says. “I was really impressed with the products, notably the dry wines. I prefer bone-dry.”
At the same time, he does realize how much easier it is to create great wines in mild California. The weather on the Eastern Seaboard presents huge challenges for picking the grapes. “My friends out west are like, ‘Oh. We got a little spritz of rain this week,’ ” says McCormack. “Meanwhile, I’m like, ‘It dumped inches of rain in the half-hour.’ ”
Even so, weather patterns have been less predicable across the board in recent years. This year McCormack has been dealing with a “stressed out” harvest. He’s still expecting to bring in fruit for the next three weeks, which is later than the norm — the peak tends to be October — but that offers guests more opportunity to watch the harvest in action.
Brooklyn Winery offers at least a couple tours per week, which can be booked through its website. For $35 per person, each one-hour tour culminates with a tasting. Scheduled tours can be booked on Sunday, November 2, and Monday, November 3. Visit bkwinery.com.