The Brooklyn Crush

crushIt’s a cold day around noon near the waterfront in Red Hook, and inside an old brick building on a corner stand three men in deep concentration, each holding a glass filled with a liquid that glows pale gold in the afternoon light. The only sounds—other than the occasional city bus rumbling by on pot-holed streets—is the swishing of wine in their mouths, and the puh-tew of it being spat out into a drain hole in the concrete floor.

Wineries show up in all kinds of unlikely places: unromantic industrial parks, old potato barns, cleared-out garages. But Red Hook Winery’s digs in a former cannonball factory (then bar, then furniture store) at the dusty intersection of Van Dyke and Dwight Streets—and in a special kind of poetic proximity, across the street from Sixpoint Brewery—may well top the scale of unusual. Call it crazy, call it urban romance, just don’t try to call this wine by any formal name, just yet. Red Hook Winery may have begun crushing and fermenting last August, but winemaker/co-owner Abe Schoener and his partners aren’t quite ready for labels. Instead, it’s more about exploring Long Island grapes in the heart of the urban tip of the landmass. “We’re really here to make wine,” shrugs Schoener, who visits often from California, where he is better known for the boutique bottles he makes under his Scholium Project label. “The story we tell could change every month.”

That uncertainty is what Schoener and his East-West Coast partners—Mark Snyder of the Brooklyn-based wine importer called Angel’s Share; Max Loubiere, Mark’s old friend from the music biz; Bob Foley of the venerable Robert Foley Vineyards in Napa; and Michael Cinque of 30-year-old Amagansett Wine & Spirits—get juiced on. It’s the notion that they aren’t manipulating their North Fork–sourced grapes via wizardly winemaker tricks to be what they want them to be, but that the wine is gently coaxed to become its own best version of itself. It’s the idea that here in Red Hook—at the opposite tip of the island from the vineyards— Schoener, Loubiere, Snyder, Foley and Cinque are trying to get at the essence of what Long Island wine is, to find the best expression of the grapes that grow in our own backyard.

That calls for experimentation, of course: “On November 19, I brought in four tons of merlot from Southold [Long Island]—same field, same rows, same trucks that unloaded it. Abe got two tons, and Bob got two tons. It’s like having twins and having two different guys raising them,” laughs Cinque, who used his local relationships to contract for the best of the North Fork’s hard-to-come-by grapes and find the best people to oversee the pre-winemaking process. “They didn’t bend and twist and manufacture—they just put the grapes through their paces naturally,” he adds. “They didn’t try to steer them and teach them to talk before they were 2 years old; they’re just letting the wine grow up and be its own person. It’s going to be so interesting to see what happens.”

That’s what Schoener, Snyder and assistant winemaker Christopher Nicolson are doing over and over again on this particular afternoon. They taste and taste through all the seasoned French oak barrels stacked six and seven feet high in two tight rows. Each time, they talk about what was, what is and what might be for wines made in this 3,500-square-foot winery. One particular barrel of sauvignon blanc elicits a few “woo-hoo!”s from both Nicolson and Schoener. They weren’t in love with it earlier on (“a couple of weeks ago, this was undrinkable,” admits Nicolson), but it morphed into a citrusy, creamy contender with aromas of honeysuckle and apricot. “This is a winner,” says Schoener.

“It’s either gone through malolactic [fermentation], or it’s going through it. I think it’s helping to prevent the development of aldehyde. What do you think?” he asks Nicolson. He sounds like he knows exactly what the answer is, but wants his assistant winemaker to get there on his own. During this entire afternoon of tasting, in fact, the process of learning seems as important as the fate of the wine—an all-thoughts-on-deck classroom more akin to the winemaking program at the University of California at Davis than a fledgling winemaking operation in a city that’s not exactly known for taking things slow. That each of the partners has a day job, Schoener says, has let freedom rule so far, and also allows him to dig into his pre-wine past as a professor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, where he focused on ancient Greek philosophy.

It might seem an unlikely background for a winemaker, but it’s this very off-kilterness that keeps the balance here. These three who stand sipping look like the most improbable of musketeers, yet when you hear the excitement in their voices about what they’re doing and their collective vision for making single-vineyard Long Island wines, you know they belong together in this funky old Red Hook building. Mark, a little boxy with slightly spiky black hair, is the Brooklyn native of the group, clad in a leather jacket and worn, laceless Chuck Taylors. His initial standoffish manner warms quickly when he gets comfortable (and really excited talking about growing his own grapes on the 11 acres owned by his mom in Manorville). There’s Christopher, whose face is ever pressed into creases of kind and earnest concern, his runner’s physique and quick movements making him appear as if he might bolt into a sprint at any moment; and Abe, the tall, sharp-dressing picture of professorial cool with nerdy-chic tortoiseshell glasses.

At press time, they were estimating production of about 1,000 cases, give or take, to be sold at Cinque’s shop up the island in Amagansett, with the first release coming out around April or May. What it would be, they weren’t really sure yet. “We’re guessing that one of Bob Foley’s chardonnays could be ready by mid-spring,” says Nicolson, “but one of Abe’s whites, perhaps his chardonnay blend, could be ready, too. We’re tasting all the lots regularly.”

In the end, it doesn’t much seem to matter to them which it is—just that the wine shows not just the future of the North Fork’s best, but also a deeply rooted commitment and love of Long Island’s agricultural history and maybe even Brooklyn’s immigrant winemaking roots. Cinque’s own grandfather happened to be an Italian immigrant who landed in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn and, as many like him, used to make wine in the family’s home; the old press sits in his shop as a talisman.

“I remember making wine with him,” muses Cinque, who says he often thought of his grandfather during his recent harvest-time hauls taking freshly crushed grape juice westward on the LIE and BQE. “I’d be driving with all this juice, and say, ‘Look, Pop, I’m making wine, too. In Brooklyn.’”

Amy Zavatto’s first wine-tasting experience was the stuff her Calabrian grandfather used to make in his basement. She’s been hooked ever since. She writes about food, wine and spirits for Edible magazines, Imbibe, Wynn magazine and others, and is the co-author of The Renaissance Guide to Wine & Food Pairing along with the wonderful and debonair Brooklyln patriot Tony DiDio. She grew up on Shelter Island and has an unwavering love of New York wine. Dig it.

Snif Test: Mark Snyder and Christopher Nicolson are eking out the essence of Long island terroir at their new winery on the tip of the island (aka Red Hook).