Family Bonding Over Blending Wine at City Winery


During adolescence, parents often teach their children the maxim that the best gift they can give is the one they make. Does it follow, then, that a better gift would be one you make with your parents? In the case of the Browns, it overwhelmingly does.

As the holidays draw near, millions of Americans prepare for the annual onslaught of familial obligations coupled with the mania of shopping for an array of presents; some view the season with dread, while others genuinely enjoy the chance to bond with relatives. For the Browns, connecting takes the form of uncorking a bottle of their very own Brown Family Reserve, a wine they blended together at City Winery (155 Varick Street, 212-608-0555) in New York to give away throughout the holidays to clients and friends.

Jeff Brown, a principal of Charles Street Capital (a real estate development firm active in Brooklyn), first approached his father, Doug Brown, with the idea of making their own wine almost three years ago. “I was telling him about a barrel that a colleague, Steve van der Zwan, also an investor of City Winery, had commissioned, and how he had given bottles out as holiday gifts,” recalls Jeff.

As a longtime wine lover, Doug, a former lawyer and now partner in Charles Street Capital, liked the idea: “We thought commissioning a barrel would be a lot of fun and could potentially be good for business.” They contacted the director of wine sales at City Winery, Raul Mesias, to solicit more details and set up their first consultation.

City Winery is a one-of-a-kind operation. Located in downtown Manhattan on the western edge of Soho, it’s the brainchild of well-known Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf. The project was born of his passion for both wine and music, leading to the amalgamation that is now New York’s only fully functioning winemaking facility that also serves as a 21,000-square-foot restaurant and event space, equipped with a stage, state-of-the-art sound system, and in-house A/V.

Perhaps cooler than the fact that concertgoers can drink wine made in the cellar below while listening to first-rate blues, jazz, and rock bands above, is that City Winery offers aspiring vintners access to try their hand at crafting wine in an urban setting.

To fulfill winemaking dreams, however, prospective vintners have to buy into a barrel. There are several levels of opportunity, ranging from sharing one to purchasing the entire container of juice, which yields around 21 to 23 cases. Jeff and his dad opted to go big. Says Doug: “We thought that we were getting pretty good value, but I can’t lie. The idea was daunting. With 23 cases, you don’t want something you don’t want to drink.”

Fortunately, all members of the barrel program have access to City Winery’s chief winemaker and Rhône Valley native David Lecomte. With a degree in viticulture, a master’s in enology and winemaking, and stints in several well-known wine regions in France, Virginia, and New York under his belt, Lecomte ensures his client’s wines don’t disappoint.

“We found the prospect of blending a bit unnerving because when we tried it before in Rutherford, we didn’t really like what we made,” Doug says. “But a professional winemaker at City Winery wasn’t going to let it get screwed up. There is the element of risk if you end up not being happy. But that makes it fun.”

After selecting the size of their commitment, both in volume and expense (the program isn’t cheap, ranging from $29 to $38 per bottle, depending on grape variety and vineyard), the Browns had to decide on the wine. Options range from whites like Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Chardonnay to reds like Pinot Noir and Syrah. But Jeff and his dad, longtime Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux lovers, chose a muscular 2010 Napa Cab from the Bettinelli Vineyard in Yountville as the base for a Bordeaux-style blend. “We wanted to make what we drink,” says Jeff.

While some participants opt to be involved with their wine-child from birth (crush) to bottle — a very long, delayed-gratification process for those making age-worthy reds — the Browns picked a base wine already in oak from the previous vintage. While that shaved off a year of the process, it still took nearly 18 months from joining the program before they would be drinking a bottle with a steak off the grill.

Members are invited to various events throughout the year to keep them engaged while their wines evolve. City Winery hosts both a spring and fall harvest party (it sources grapes from vineyards in both hemispheres), allows four private barrel tastings (to check on the wine’s development), plus offers access to a Wine 101 Education Series with Lecomte. Other benefits include VinoFile membership, wine and cheese pairing classes, and advance notice of festivals, events, and musical performances.

In the meantime, the Browns worked with the in-house designer, included with their package, to craft a label. Fond of the simple but elegant Châteaux images that grace many bottles from Bordeaux, the Browns submitted a photo of their family home for the design.

After two years in barrel, their Cab was deemed rested and ready to go. Gathering at City Winery, they met Lecomte for their blending session. “By definition, we were getting a big Cab,” says Doug. “We wanted to soften it up and give it a longer finish. It reminded me of being in a chemistry lab. After two hours, we took a vote, resulting in the final wine, the Brown Family Reserve.”

When asked how the wine turned out, especially after the long wait and financial investment, Doug remarks: “We’ve given away at least half of it. It makes a great calling card and ice breaker with our business clients, and we often bring our own wine to someone’s dinner. We had a college friend who is pretty knowledgeable about wine, and he said, ‘It’s a good thing this wine is really good since you have a lot of it.’ ”

The Browns liked the experience and their wine so much they’ve gone back for a second barrel, another Napa Cab, this time from Diamond Mountain. “We have been really happy with it, obviously, enough if we’d do it again,” says Doug.