If You Are What You Drink, Brooklyn Is a Bottle of Righteous Wine

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With apologies to Brillat-Savarin, tell me what you drink and I’ll tell you where you live.

Even within our 21st-century megalopolis, we’re culinary clansmen, clustering in tribes with people of similar world views and, in the process, becoming even more alike. It’s not news that we tend to vote and worship as our neighbors do, but often we drink that way, too. Like birds of a feather, biodynamic drinkers flock together.

So forget your hipster haircut, your knowledge of the G train, your passion for the Dirty Projectors or the fact that you’re holding this magazine, if your current quaffs include that limited edition Lambrusco with the brown-paper label and the new rosé from Long Island’s Croteaux, chances are you live in Brooklyn.  Sure, we may be better known as a beer and spirits mecca, but we’re practically an offbeat appellation, what with minerally chardonnays made just a few blocks from the Red Hook waterfront and Brooklyn Oenology‘s Greenpoint-based bottles taking home national medals. Where else but in Brooklyn would a winemaker name one of their best sellers after something like the BQE?

Our patterns are partly driven by younger drinkers, who tend to be more exploratory, more open to lesser-known varietals and to new-world wines whose price points allow those with pint-size budgets to drink by the gallon. The Wine Market Council calls these drinkers “millennials,” so named because as a group they began attaining drinking age in the year 2000. (Though if you park your tricked-out stroller at Park Slope’s Red, White & Bubbly on a biweekly basis, the thought of 21-year-olds born in 1989 probably just made you gasp.)

Millennials show a distinct openness in picking their potables, making them equally likely to embrace a red from Lebanon as a cabernet from California. And they’re not just buying on Bedford.  While those in the North Slope grab food-friendly wines for a meal en famille, notes Charlie O’Donnell of Shawn Wine and Spirits on Seventh Avenue, “South Slope is a much younger demographic.  They are more cost-conscious, but they also buy more often.” And, he adds, they’re more eclectic in their choices.

(Note that it’s not just millennials who buy with price point in mind: even in prime Park Slope, which O’Donnell has seen “go through waves of gentrification and settle down into relative affluence,” brownstone buyers are less into conspicuous consumption these days-unless you count that Diana Kane dress. Back at Fifth Avenue’s Red, White & Bubbly, reports buyer Edna Lee, value wines under $8 are all the rage.)

And the farm-to-fork phenomenon has spawned the locavore pour, as eco-eaters seek low-carbon vino to pair with their Jersey peaches and pastured pork. Many even bring back bottles from wine-soaked weekends on Long Island or up in the Finger Lakes.

That ethos is evident in Williamsburg, says Don Weber of UVA, which sells wines at the nexus of the hipster universe at North Sixth Street and Bedford. His clientele is replete with guitar-carrying, glasses-wearing, art-making, CSA-joining, cupcake-baking drinkers who are just as likely to buy a case of Channing Daughters rosé for their secret supper club as a cheap Chilean red on the way home from their shift pulling shots of fair-trade espresso.

That geeked-out crowd is thirsty for “a lot of discussion and sharing of knowledge,” says Weber, a musician himself when not proselytizing: “We are really opinionated and evangelical.” He’s referring to UVA’s tightly curated selection focusing on small producers and sustainability-what Weber likes to call “righteous wines.”

Michael Yarmark might call them “genuine,” something we Brooklynites appreciate even if we did dye our hair and get a tattoo only after we moved here from Ann Arbor. Yarmark, who co-owns Thirst Wine Merchants in Fort Greene, says Brooklynites “are looking for things with a sense of authenticity,” which in this case means beverages with a backstory. And if that includes an organic grape grower howling at the moon in true biodynamic style, even better. Thirst’s focus is wines “made as naturally as possible, that really represent terroir.” Yarmark finds that his customers want wines “that are particular and unique,” despite their price.

Customers at Sip Fine Wine in the South Slope are also on the quest for the quirky. “We work with small producers who make limited amounts and wines change with every vintage,” says owner Nick Diminno. And forget merlot monogamy. “We switch things up a lot,” he says, adding that his local clientele are more interested in hooking up with a varietal they’ve never met before than having dinner with an old favorite.

It seems we Brooklyn wine buyers are a wonky lot. Take the snatch of conversation recently overhead in Prospect Park: “If we have any water left,” the pourer told his picnicking friends, as their kids ate Union Market takeout off paper plates, “I really recommend you cleanse your glass, as the Lambrusco’s really distinctive.”

Some say a conversation like that is more common here than across the river. “There are a lot of food writers and waiters and chefs in the neighborhood,” says Michelle Pravda, co-owner of Carroll Garden’s Smith & Vine. “People who work in the food industry, and they are pretty savvy, with well-evolved palates.  People who are used to drinking from great wine lists at restaurants and they want to experience those wines at home as well.”

That’s true even in the once wild wild west of Red Hook, says Ron Kyle, proprietor of Dry Dock Wines + Spirits, which carries 400 carefully chosen wines. “It’s a strange neighborhood with a very eclectic community,” says Kyle; this includes “artists, chefs, editors and the Times food critic.”

That insider knowledge means even a small shop can put out cutting-edge stock. “We have some pretty funky and eclectic stuff, and our customers support that,” says Pravda, who, along with husband, Patrick Watson, has created a mini vino empire.  The couple also owns cheese shop Stinky Bklyn, the wine bar the Jakewalk and recently opened the Brooklyn Wine Exchange, complete with a section dedicated to locally made quaffs.

Then again, says Tara Mathison of Heights Chateau on Atlantic Avenue-where wines from Greece, Lebanon and Israel are sent out daily with diners headed to nearby BYOB Mediterranean row-sometimes we just want our small-batch booze.

“We just sold out of our second bourbon barrel from the Buffalo Trace distillery in a little less than a month,” she says, “I had no idea [Brooklynites] love bourbon just as much as me!”

Spirits are also in high demand at Long’s Wine and Liquors, the Bay Ridge institution Heather Hamilton took over in 2008.  In addition to raiding the much wider wine selection now found alongside the bottles that have sustained the neighborhood’s Italian and Irish communities for decades, newly arrived yuppies are buying up craft spirits, too. And sometimes old and new meet in unexpected ways, says Hamilton: Rye may be coming hot among the hipsters, but among the old-timers, it never went out.  And apparently whiskey is eternal. “Everyone drinks Jameson,” laughs Hamilton. “We sell a shocking amount of Jameson.”

Regardless of where you live, we can all raise a glass to that.

UVA’s clientele is replete with guitar-carrying, CSA-joining, cupcake-baking drinkers who are just as likely to buy a case of Channing Daughters rosé for their secret supper club as a cheap Chilean red on the way home from their shift pulling shots of fair trade espresso.

Forget Tea Leaves: Brooklyn Wine Exchange’s Chris Modica; Sip’s Nick DiMinno; Red, White & Bubbly’s Adam Goldstein and Thirst’s Michael Yarmark all see your soul via your glass.

Lisa McLaughlin

Lisa McLaughlin writes about food, drink and cultural trends for Time magazine when she isn't busy trying to figure out how to grow hops on her windowsill.

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