Bred and Wine

A Brooklyn girl, a Chilean winemaker, and the rebirth of America’s oldest winery.

Marcie Baeza never thought of herself as a Brooklyn girl. Maybe the daughter of one, certainly the product of a love story that flowered there. But a woman with a mission to bring local wine to Brooklynites? Not so much.

But let’s back up a little.

Before Marcie’s dad, Cesar Baeza, became part-owner, executive vice president, and winemaker of Hudson Valley’s Brotherhood Winery (the oldest winery in the United States, having made its first vintage in 1839), before Marcie and her brother were even born, Baeza was just a young man who fell head over heels for a no-nonsense girl from Bensonhurst.

Baeza hailed from Santiago, Chile, where he dreamed of becoming a winemaker and, one day, owning his own winery. By college, he submerged himself in enology and viticulture studies and, in an effort to learn old-world ways, finagled a semester in Spain. What Baeza couldn’t know was that destiny awaited him there in the form of a pretty Kings County-born girl who would lure him from Chile to America.

“My mom, Annette Volk, went to Georgetown and was a Spanish major,” recounts Marcie. “She was abroad at the same time as my dad, and he pursued her. She likes to say she was just using him for help with her Spanish homework, but they fell in love and my dad basically followed her back to Brooklyn.”

After the semester in Spain, Cesar returned to Chile, but upon completion of his degree, the lovesick young winemaker sought out his bride-to-be. They spent their newlywed year in Annette’s family home in Bensonhurst. “One of my favorite stories my parents would tell me,” laughs Marcie, “was that whenever anyone asked what my dad did for a living, he’d say, ‘I’m a winemaker,’ and they’d look at him strangely and be like, ‘Yeah, me too, but what do you do?’ They were Italian and they all made wine in their homes. My dad just didn’t understand.”

That first year in Brooklyn, Baeza applied for a foot-in-the-door job at Brotherhood’s Washingtonville location up in the Hudson River Valley. An hour from New York City, the commute wasn’t so bad and the position would enable him to apply some of what he’d learned in his studies, but an odd twist of fate put him on another path. He got the job, but the offer for the position came in the form of a letter that was sent to Baeza’s Brooklyn address where he was living with his in-laws.

“Back then, the mailman in Bensonhurst knew my mom’s family, and I guess it was early enough in my parents’ marriage that the mail carrier didn’t know who my dad was yet. He crossed out the name on the envelope and brought it back to the post office.”

In the 1970s, New York State’s fledgling wine industry didn’t provide much opportunity for a man who wanted to dwell among vines, fermenting tanks, and crush pads, so Baeza took a job at a winery in Bakersfield, CA, and did some post-grad work in the hallowed enology halls of UC Davis. “More than 90% of America’s wine business is in California, so I thought it was the place to be,” remembers Cesar, adding that both the geography and the wine reminded him of Chile’s. But as soon as he thought he’d found home, fate sought him out again. The young family packed up their Camaro to drive the 3,000 miles back to Brooklyn, with Cesar taking an offer at PepsiCo’s then-wine division in Westchester.

In 1987, Brotherhood Winery went up for sale and Cesar found himself at the helm, running the show as he always dreamed, and taking seriously the task of running America’s oldest winery. “I said I wasn’t going to be the one to turn off the light at Brotherhood,” says Cesar. “I was determined I was not going to be the one to leave the winery to be turned into condominiums.” It seemed, maybe, that the chapter on the Baeza family’s time in Brooklyn had finally closed.

Then again, maybe not.

Not only do both Annette and Cesar’s children live in Brooklyn now (with Marcie’s brother taking up residence in the old family home in Bensonhurst), but it seems to be the borough that’s embracing New York wine more than any other, with spots like Williamsburg’s much-loved Sweetwater restaurant, Greenpoint’s Wine Cellar Sorbet (which uses Brotherhood’s wines as their base) and Stain on Grand Street (which only sells New York wine and beer and has Brotherhood’s ruby-colored pinot noir on their list, as well as a one of Cesar’s ports) embracing the local drinkable bounty. “Brooklyn has embraced ‘local,’” says Cesar. “Williamsburg, Park Slope—their arms are wide open to our wines. Before, New York was a very unfriendly place for local wine. This generation makes us feel welcome.” And now Marcie’s deep in talks to open a tasting room that would showcase Brotherhood wine. “I have my dad’s blessing,” Marcie says of her wine-bar plan. “We talk more now than ever. He’s really excited.”

So these days, Cesar and Annette—the once love-sick boy and his beloved Brooklyn girl—often find themselves on the BQE, heading to town to visit the kids, check on the old homestead, and, at times, drop off wine to a client. “California was nice but it wasn’t home,” shrugs Cesar. “Having the kids in Brooklyn is very meaningful for us.”

“It’s funny,” muses Marcie, “ I don’t think my mom thought I would end up in Brooklyn. When I was at NYU, and even in high school, I was all about the city and said I’d never move to Brooklyn. I associated it with my grandmother and my Aunt Faye. All the old people!” She laughs. “I remember when I said I was moving out to Williamsburg, my mom was like, ‘What?! Where? Why!’ Now I wouldn’t move back to Manhattan if someone paid me. A good weekend is when I don’t leave the borough.”

When his new Bensonhurst neighbors asked Santiago-born Baeza what he did for a living, he’d say, ‘I’m a winemaker,’ and they’d look at him strangely and say, ‘Yeah, me too, but what do you do?’

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Amy Zavatto is the daughter of an old school Italian butcher who used to sell bay scallops alongside steaks, and is also the former Deputy Editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She holds her Level III Certification in Wine and Spirits from the WSET, and contributes to Imbibe, Whisky Advocate, SOMMJournal, Liquor.com, and others. She is the author of Forager's Cocktails: Botanical Mixology with Fresh, Natural Ingredients and The Architecture of the Cocktail. She's stomped around vineyards from the Finger Lakes to the Loire Valley and toured distilleries everywhere from Kentucky to Jalisco to the Highlands of Scotland. When not doing all those other things, Amy is the Director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance.