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Big Grapes Hit the Big Apple

New Yorkers will soon be able to taste Long Island wines made at two Brooklyn wineries, or make their own barrel of wine in the heart of Manhattan

Robert Taylor
Posted: September 24, 2008

Harvest 2008 is under way, and the wineries of New York City are buzzing. No, no one has planted Cabernet on Central Park's Great Lawn, but three new wineries have opened in the Big Apple this year. All are hoping to tap a growing interest in winemaking among New Yorkers who may want to visit a winery without traveling to wine country, or even to try their hand at making their own cuvée.

Crush has already begun at City Winery, founded by Michael Dorf, who opened one of New York's premier music venues, the Knitting Factory, in 1987. The winery builds on the model of CrushPad, the San Francisco-based custom winery where consumers can make a barrel of their own wine with the assistance of in-house winemakers. David Lecomte, who has worked in France's Rhône Valley and started his career at M. Chapoutier, serves as City Winery's head winemaker.

City Winery will be much more than a place to make wine, however, when it fully opens to the public in November. The space, located in an old warehouse in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, will also feature a restaurant and music venue as well as a wine bar and a cheese counter operated by Murray's Cheese shop, one of New York's oldest and most respected purveyors. Dorf, who has a long history in the music business, also surmises that City Winery will have the finest sound system of any winery in the world.

To make a barrel of wine, City Winery members pay a fee ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the level of involvement they wish to have and how they want their wine to be made and bottled. Barrel owners will have the opportunity to make wine from grapes that have been trucked or shipped from California, Oregon, Washington and New York this fall, and in the spring, from Chile and Argentina. So far, approximately 30 percent of the 300 available barrels have been reserved, according to Dorf.

Dorf said City Winery had brought in 5.5 tons of early-harvest Zinfandel from Madder Lake Vineyard in California's Lake County on a refrigerated truck on Sept. 18. All of the fruit Dorf sources is picked and loaded into small, 28-pound bins (purchased from Bonny Doon winery when it was sold) and taken immediately to a pre-cooling facility where the core temperature of the grapes is brought down to 34° F, then trucked, under refrigerated carbon dioxide, in the same small bins to minimize crushing before arrival in New York.

Dorf said the Zinfandel grapes arrived in excellent condition last week after their six-day journey. "We were so excited. Basically we tested the system and it worked. We tested all the equipment and it worked. It worked so precisely that David nailed exactly how long it would take to process that fruit," Dorf said. "For me, I was really blown away, to see these machines, and this whole-berry cluster of fruit go through the destemmer and onto the sorting table, and there's the individual berries, and the berries go up on the conveyor into the tank, and we filled the tank and the temperature in the tanks is slowly rising."

City Winery also has a separate barrel room, large enough for 30 barrels, for making kosher wine.

For the other two New York wineries, both in Brooklyn, harvest is still a week or two away. Abe Schoener, who makes the Scholium Project wines in California, is opening a yet-unnamed winery in Red Hook, which he tentatively plans to call Erie Basin. (Erie Basin is the historic name of the neighborhood, and the winery is situated in the Beard Street Piers Warehouse on the body of water formerly known as the Erie Basin, an important shipping destination in the 19th century.) Schoener's partners are his New York-based distributor for the Scholium wines, Mark Snyder, and iconic California winemaker Robert Foley.

Schoener's grapes will come exclusively from the North Fork of Long Island, where he has contracts with three growers who each have their own wineries. "They're eager to work with us," he said. "There's some excitement that California, instead of looking down on them, is eager to get involved, and Bob and I represent California, and Mark's book is almost exclusively California."

Schoener, Snyder and Foley want to make New York wines in Schoener's California style. "We're used to a higher level of ripeness than people on Long Island are, so we're going to push things as far as we can, and it might blow up in our faces," Schoener said. "Maybe we won't be able to get anything close to what we're expecting, but we don't think we'll be harvesting any fruit [until the first or second week of October], if not later than that."

Making wine on both coasts can be a daunting task, but this year the timing has proved fortunate. "We're almost done here [in California]," Schoener said. "It's not something that I can typically count on every year. I've really got a great assistant in New York who will probably deserve the title of winemaker, Christopher Nicolson, who worked at Artesa in Napa and under Ted Lemon at Littorai."

Bridge Urban Winery, which opened earlier this year, is also offering wines from North Fork vineyards. Located in the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood, the Bridge Urban wine bar and restaurant, which exclusively serves wines made in New York state, is currently just a satellite of Long Island's Bridge Vineyards, but its owners plan to expand the operation and eventually make wine there. They also anticipate offering a barrel program to consumers who would like to make their own barrel of North Fork wine in Brooklyn.

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