What do you do when a 5-foot wall of water comes crashing through the front door of your winery, carrying several barrel-sized concrete planters along with it?
It's not a question that most wineries need to ponder. But that's exactly what happened to Red Hook Winery on the night that Hurricane Sandy backhanded the tristate area.
The winery is located in the isolated Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, which sits on low ground abutting New York Harbor. It had recently moved to a waterfront warehouse on Pier 41, overlooking Lady Liberty, and was directly in the line of fire when Sandy sent a surge of saltwater up underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and through the harbor, flooding Red Hook, Lower Manhattan and the East Village.
"When I arrived the morning after the storm, it was just shock and awe," said onsite winemaker Christopher Nicolson. "There was a carpet of grapes from fermentations that had overturned, three planters—which weigh a couple hundred pounds each—in the center of the winery, and barrels overturned everywhere. There was just a calm state of sadness as we walked through the winery with flashlights. None of us were speaking; we were just stupefied."
I arrived at Red Hook Winery on Nov. 6, a week after that morning. There was still no power, and there wouldn't be for weeks. Before the storm made landfall in New Jersey, cables on Pier 41 had blown down, sending blue sparks into the air and resulting in, according to Nicolson, "a vibrating hum of 600-volt energy." The FDNY cut the cords to the whole pier. The winery's front windows were still blown out, and the tasting room had been transformed into wine's version of a war room: Hundreds of bottles sat on tables, competing for space with flashlights, rags, clipboards, half-eaten pies, coffee cups and bags of potato chips.
Since the day after the storm the winery had welcomed a throng of community volunteers and industry folk who'd found their way to Red Hook Winery out of a sense of obligation. To many of them, including myself, this winery had become—in the four years since Mark Snyder and winemakers Abe Schoener and Bob Foley opened their doors—our winery.
It helped us feel closer to wine in a city that, despite the abundance of wine available, often feels far away from the heart of what makes it great: the devotional act of making wine, the people who make it, and why.
To me, the inclusiveness of Red Hook Winery has been its great success. It's not a DIY facility, but if you wanted to be a part of it, you could be. I crushed fruit at the winery during the 2010 harvest, and a barrel of Cabernet Franc still says "Talia B." on it even though my name has no business being on any barrel, anywhere. It's just one of many ways they said to the community, "We don't want to do this without you." After Sandy, the community paid that sentiment forward.
"When we walked in, we figured it was over," said Snyder. "But the community—the armies of volunteers working circles around us—has been the inspiration for us to rebuild."
That process is going to be fraught with hurdles that aren't even within eyeshot yet. Red Hook sustained more than $1 million in damage to the building and equipment. According to Snyder, something like 80 percent of the fermenting wine has been compromised, in addition to 50 to 80 percent of the aging wine and about 50 cases of bottled wine.
The community came out to help salvage what they could. They cleaned barrels and tanks and, with a tiny pump and generator borrowed from Williamsburg's two-year-old Brooklyn Winery, they filled barrels with what they hoped to be sound wine. Whether or not it is won't be known for weeks, as tests will have to be done to ensure no saltwater or contaminants made it into the wine. Support also went beyond muscle.
"Paul Grieco [wine director and partner in Hearth and the Terroir wine bars] e-mailed me and said he wanted to buy a bunch of wines, pour them by the glass and give all the proceeds back to Red Hook Winery," said Snyder. "I agreed to sell him the wine, but we declined charity; there are so many people that don't have their basic needs fulfilled right now that it didn't feel right."
Snyder assured Grieco that buying the wines was support enough. Along with all of Grieco's locations, others followed suit. Patrick Cappiello of Gilt, a Manhattan restaurant which holds a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list, stocked up on Red Hook Winery wines, three of which he's pouring by the glass, with all the proceeds going to the Red Cross. In addition, Corkbuzz Wine Studio and all of the Boulud restaurants, among others, are pouring wines by the glass in support.
"We've received this tear-jerking, embarrassing generosity and kindness from the industry," said Nicolson. "We were so choked up by the number of people from all over that came to help us."
The devastation at Red Hook Winery and the aftermath act as important reminders that wine is as much about joy as it is about heartbreak and, as Schoener wrote on his blog after the storm, "devotion." The volatility of wine is what makes it beautiful and poignant and what, during a hailstorm in Champagne or a freak storm in New York, also makes it tragic. Devotion is what makes it possible.
"Our devotion flows from the fact that the essence of winemaking is not something silly like blending or ordering the right barrels," wrote Schoener. "The essence of winemaking is preservation and transformation."
Here's to that.