They call him “Airstream Pete.”
Or at least they did; today, the title “assistant winemaker” affords Peter Becraft a bit more dignity. But for three months in 2006, when Becraft was living in his 1959 Airstream Falcon, parked alongside the Anthony Road winery in the Finger Lakes, Airstream Pete must have seemed more appropriate.
What was he doing there, when he could be back in Brooklyn with his wife, Cary, in their comfortable Carroll Gardens apartment? The short answer: learning to make wine. But changing from a job track in the New York fashion scene to juice-stained winemaker requires a bit more back story.
Peter, 41, had first gotten interested in wine while studying art in Cortona, Italy; not wine as fetish for connoisseurs, he says, but as a part of daily life—or, as he puts it, “the way it’s ingrained in the culture.” Back in Brooklyn, his interest developed into an obsession.
His now-wife Cary worked as a pastry chef at the River Café, a restaurant as respected for its wine list as for its food. The head pastry chef lived in Brooklyn, too, and they shared many great meals together. “I got exposed to really fine wines,” says Peter. The experience triggered something in him; he began reading, studying and collecting wines, and frequenting bottle shops around his Carroll Gardens home, like Smith & Vine, Scotto’s Wine Cellar and Heights Chateau.
Wine didn’t look like a career path yet. Peter was working in fashion photography, but with fading interest after 9/11. “We started looking at our lives; life’s too short to not be happy.”
They married in October 2002 and honeymooned for three and a half weeks in Italy. At a winery in Montepulciano’s main piazza, Peter felt inspiration and avocation akin to a religious experience: “We walked down tunnels filled with large casks and there were stairs leading to the subterranean cellar. At the bottom were old, dusty bottles of ancient vintages, and that is when the power of the legacy hit me. It immediately hit me that [what] I had found meant something deep to this culture and I wanted to be a part of something real like that.”
Peter came home determined to find work in wine. He signed up for Kevin Zraly’s famous Windows on the World Wine Course and attended a four-day Wine Camp on Long Island.
When Fort Greene’s beloved Greene Grape wine shop opened an outpost over in the Financial District called Downtown Cellars, Peter took a leap of faith and signed up for a sales job. It meant a full schedule: He still worked as a casting director for a fashion photographer all week long, then reported to the wine shop on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. “I was working two jobs, but only one of them felt like work,” he recalls.
“Peter was really knowledgeable,” says owner Seth Datz. “He was quite into food and did well with suggesting pairings.” Even then, though, Seth says working the floor was clearly not Peter’s destiny. “He seemed very early on to be into the winery side of the business.”
In the spring of 2006, he and Cary took a trip to the Finger Lakes’ wine country. They’d heard good things about Johannes Reinhardt, the young German winemaker at Anthony Road winery, and Peter had been impressed with the wines he had tasted at Anthony Road’s stand at the Union Square Greenmarket, so they stopped in for an impromptu visit. While they sipped, Johannes walked into the tasting room on his way to get some lunch; from his tall rubber boots Cary knew this must be the vintner, and they struck up a conversation. He brought them into the winery to taste some of the wines still aging in barrel, when impulsivity struck.
“I jokingly said I was looking for help for harvest,” says Johannes. “It just came out.”
Cary immediately replied, “He’d love to do it.” And minutes after meeting, that was that, at least in Peter’s mind.
Over the summer, Peter and Johannes stayed in touch. “I tried to talk him out of it,” says Johannes. “Many people [have] a very romantic feeling of the industry and don’t realize how hard it is.” But Johannes’s wines made a stronger impression than his warnings. When September came and the grapes were ready, so was he.
When Peter arrived in the Finger Lakes with his Airstream—a wedding gift he and Cary had bought for themselves and kept as a weekend home in the Hudson Valley—he had a three-month commitment ahead of him. But while some city wine geeks might show up to ask questions and take notes, Reinhardt says Peter was a reliable, hard worker. Anthony Road owner John Martini was more specific about Peter’s endearing efforts. “He came to work on the press deck, and he didn’t ask ‘why’ at the wrong time. You do what Johannes says; there’ll be time to ask why later.”
Wineries require only a skeleton crew during the rest of the year, so after crush, when Peter asked to stay on, Martini proposed another idea: “Would you be willing to work in the vineyard?” And that was the beginning of the end of Peter and Cary’s time in Brooklyn.
They moved up in April. “Coming from the city, I was completely stoked to be with nature. The dirt, the green, the bugs, the sun, the smells, it was much desired. Driving a tractor. Our wines are only as good as the fruit that is grown, so to help the vines through the growing season was really educational.”
Johannes has become part of the Martini extended family, but he’s bought property across the road and is making slow steps toward launching his own winery, and he knew he’d eventually need to train and mentor a replacement. When his assistant winemaker, Chris Gerling, left for Cornell’s viticulture and enology program, Johannes offered the job to Becraft. Despite the winemaker’s confidence in him, Peter didn’t feel he was up to it.
“I turned it down,” says Peter. “I knew they wanted someone who could take over eventually. I wasn’t confident I could do that.”
Another assistant was found, but in the middle of the 2008 harvest, Johannes let him go and this time Peter took the position. A battlefield promotion, perhaps, but Johannes already felt confident that Peter would be ready for greater responsibilities as they came. “People like him can learn in four or five years much more than someone else in 20 years,” says Johannes.
The following year Peter’s old Greene Grape boss, Seth Datz, came up to get some harvest experience. “I worked with Peter and stayed at his house for a week in October. He was totally in his element,” Datz remembers, “whether it was checking samples, cleaning presses, punching down caps, hosing down the winery, picking/sorting grapes.”
Not every city mouse adapts so readily—after a few days, Seth was “bored out of my mind.” But while Peter doesn’t miss urban life, his city sales sensibilities serve the winemaker well. Says Seth, “Peter brings a sense of how things sell in the city,” in addition to knowledge about wines from other parts of the world, which Seth feels is lacking in some parts of the Finger Lakes wine industry.
While Cary seems to miss Brooklyn a bit more than Peter—when asked, she reels off a list of the epicurean virtues in their old neighborhood—Peter’s longings are less about access to their old haunts than making his mark on them, something he marveled at when he came back last May.
“I was blown away by the response to our wines and to the newfound acceptance of New York wines. Many of the spots I visited already carried our wines, and that was too cool,” he says. “I have always wanted to have Anthony Road wines back in my old ’hood. In a way, it’s a way for me to still be there.”