It might seem slightly crazy to have planned our visit for the week after a major blizzard, but it provided the perfect opportunity to meet with growers and vintners at the quietest time of year, and begin to understand this complex area where sound, land and sea meet and serious wine is made.
Prior to leaving the city we visited Brooklyn Winery and met with founders Brian Leventhal and John Stires, as well as winemaker Conor McCormack. The winery, housed in an old industrial building in Williamsburg, provides about five thousand cases a year. The project was born out of a trip to a New Jersey vineyard where over the course of a year you could make a barrel of wine. Former tech workers Brian and John were hooked, and they found Conor (previously of Crush Pad in San Francisco) to be their wine maker. Their initial vision was of a Crush Pad-type project where individuals could make their own wine; they have since abandoned this strategy in favor of creating wine under their Brooklyn label.
Conor sources grapes not only from Long Island (Merlot) and upstate New York, but also from California and Washington. Grapes arrive by truck and are off-loaded into a sky-lit courtyard where the crush takes place. This courtyard opens onto a tank room and a barrel room completes the picture. At the center of it all is a dynamic urban wine bar that was packed on the Tuesday evening we visited. While sampling their wine we talked about various challenges, including the high cost of Long Island grapes due to high land and labor costs. Yet these regional grapes remain an important part of the identity of Brooklyn Winery as a New York project. We also learned of their upcoming project at the Washington Navy Yard. Similar to many wineries, the event business is an important source of publicity and revenue.
Our first stop was to meet Russell Hearn of the Premium Wine Group. Premium is a custom crush facility that provides the winery infrastructure for its producers. Some local wineries such as Sparking Pointe began at Premium and graduated to their own production. Russell is a no-nonsense Aussie who realized the importance of providing custom crush to allow small producers lacking the scale for a full facility a means to enter the market. He requires each winery to have its own winemaker in charge, thus maintaining his role as purely infrastructural. Russell walked us through a primer on the challenges of local zoning and licensing of wineries including New York wine production law – too complicated to relate here, but fascinating nonetheless.
One of the most interesting aspects of local land development is the program by which Suffolk County and the state will buy development rights from land owners as a way to preserve agricultural land. We were to hear a great deal about this program over the two days – both the benefit in preserving the agricultural character of the North Point along with the challenges of wineries to maintain their operations on land that no longer has development rights.
One of the extraordinary projects ongoing is the creation of a series of standards and goals for sustainable wine growing by Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing (LISW). One of the early advocates of the project was Barbara Shinn, whose bed and breakfast at Shinn Estate Vineyards we were fortunate to get to stay at during our visit. When we drove down the drive into the winery we were greeted by the whap whap of a huge windmill. As we checked in Barbara apologized for the noise, attributing it to a tension cable that she needed to fix. She was more annoyed by the lost generating capacity than the noise.
Barbara and her husband David Page came to the North Fork after having run two restaurants in Manhattan that celebrated local produce. Much of that came from the Hudson Valley, but they fell in love with the combination of the sea and land on the North Fork. One gets the sense that Shinn Estate has been crafted from the land – land that has been restored to health by Barbara and David’s uncompromising tending – much like the barn structures that serve as winery and tasting room.