What is Brooklyn terroir? We may get a taste next year. In 2014, Wine Spectator reported on three wineries in the New York borough. None however, have grown a commercially viable vineyard there, typically sourcing grapes from the nearby Finger Lakes or Long Island regions instead. Now a new winery, Rooftop Reds, aims to be the first, with a vineyard planted with traditional Bordeaux grape varieties on a rooftop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Winemakers and co-owners Devin Shomaker, 31, and Chris Papalia, 23, expect to harvest their first Rooftop Reds crop this fall and for their Brooklyn wines to go on sale in 2017.
Their vision started when the pair were students at the Viticulture and Wine Technology program at Finger Lakes Community College upstate in Canandaigua. Shomaker was changing paths after dabbling in startup companies in Washington, D.C. Just 20 when he graduated from the program, Papalia was the youngest trained winemaker in the Finger Lakes (and too young to legally drink).
Looking to try something different, they raised money for a Brooklyn winery on Kickstarter. They also befriended Michael Countryman from Point of Bluff Vineyards, a Finger Lakes winery on Lake Keuka, and the relationship cemented into a partnership. To get them started while their vineyard matures, Rooftop Reds produced its first wines from the 2015 vintage with grapes sourced from Point of Bluff.
Their future vineyard is currently waking up from winter on a 14,000-square-foot rooftop in the DUMBO neighborhood. With help from Alan Lakso of Cornell University and their college’s viticulture program, Papalia and Shomaker created custom planters and a drainage system that allows them to dictate irrigation. The 36 planters, each 8 feet long and three feet high (deep soil allows the vines to go fully dormant during winters), line the roof in neat rows with metal Alsatian posts and a vertical shoot-position trellising system.
This fall, the winemakers anticipate the first harvest from their young vines will yield just 15 to 20 cases of a Bordeaux blend. "Per acreage, we have one of the most expensive wines in the world," said Shomaker.
While planters don’t sound like terroir, the pair are optimistic about the potential of their industrial location. They argue there’s more to terroir than soil—their vineyard enjoys strong airflow, warm temperatures and an extensive growing season—215 to 230 days—longer than in the Finger Lakes or Long Island.
Success is not guaranteed, however. Conor McCormack of Brooklyn Winery nurtured Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc vines on a Williamsburg rooftop for four years, only to have his vineyard lose its home after relations with the building’s architect turned sour.
But Shomaker says regardless of potential setbacks, he won’t be leaving the city wine scene any time soon. In coming decades, more and more of the world's population will be living in urban centers, he said. "It’s not a trend; this is a movement."