It was a sunny, slightly windy day when I waltzed into Red Hook Winery’s tasting room, the water sparkling around Pier 41 as a private event wrapped up inside, commoners like myself filtering in as soon as the doors reopened to the public. The setting is everything one might expect in an urban winemaking facility: soaring, industrial ceilings, reclaimed wood and exposed brick accents, barrels masquerading as tables, and friendly staff, the gleam of stainless steel in the distance. But there’s something that Red Hook Winery brings to the table that’s very different from the others in its class: whereas the typical négociant tends to keep the spotlight in one place (on itself), a sharing-is-caring approach is more their style. Here, a tiny team of three winemakers scours the state for the best grapes its vast terroir has to offer, bringing them back to Red Hook to transform the fruits of the growers’ labor into 150 labels, all available by the bottle under one unassuming roof.
I settled in at the tasting room’s bar, perusing the list––13 are generally available by the glass, with a handful of flights made up of fou two-ounce pours ($18 per person). For $35 a head, you can take a 30-to-45 minute tour of the winery, complete with a six-wine flight of its own, two of which are barrel samples. If you care about wine and where it’s from, the tour is certainly worth it as there’s lots of story to be told, though if you hang around at the bar long enough, you’ll likely get a taste of it there, too. I strike up a conversation with the winery’s manager, Vince Stilletti, who gives me a rundown of the winemakers and their different styles after I allude to my affinity for skin contact wines. “We currently have 13 skin contact wines available through wholesale and our tasting room; all of those are made by Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project,” he tells me, sharing a few anecdotes on Managing Winemaker Christopher Nicolson and the trifecta’s third, Robert Foley (a consulting winemaker alongside Schoener). The three each have their own distinct winemaking styles, making for a robust and well-rounded collection tied together by New York terroir.
The tasting room’s holiday menu is a succinct reflection of what these winemakers as a unit are all about. Foley dominates the white by-the-glass section with a Seneca Lake blend, a North Fork Sauvignon Blanc (both 2013), and a 2011 North Fork Viognier. An obligatory Chardonnay by Christopher Nicolson (2014) is like an ocean in a glass, made in collaboration with the Tobin family, who are known for their sustainability efforts in the area. Schoener’s Chardonnay riff is skin fermented, also from the North Fork; Nicolson highlights a North Fork rosé of Syrah beside it. Foley also shines when it comes to reds, all of which hail from the North Fork, his selections spanning Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon with one Schoener blend and a Nicolson Syrah. One sweet wine, a late harvest Riesling by Foley, punctuates the by-the-glass offerings. Across the board, one can expect to spend between $9 and $15 per glass and $25 and $45 per bottle on this menu.
Also of note is Red Hook Winery’s Island Hope, a Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot blend created as a means of hurricane relief after Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in 2017. “Our owner, Mark Snyder, got married in St. John and spent a lot of his personal time and money helping people evacuate,” says Stilletti, noting its flavor profile’s intentional compatibility with West Indian cuisine. The winery partnered with Chefs Shaun Brian and Julius Jackson for a dinner to raise awareness and funds for restoration and recently featured this wine for a fundraiser for the Bahamas as well. Island Hope will soon be featured at the winery for $15 per bottle, Stilletti tells me.
It goes without saying that no wine bar or tasting room is complete without a few snacks, and Red Hook Winery does not disappoint in that department. The horizons broaden a bit here, reaching outside of New York State for a couple of tinned seafood options from Spain, cheeses from New Hampshire, Vermont, and France, and two local-ish charcuterie selections (a cured pork from Long Island City and a spicy cacciatorini from New Jersey). Choose one, two, or three to be served with pita chips or flatbread to be served alongside your wine.
After a glass too many, I left with a sense of education that I wasn’t expecting––we don’t think often enough about the wines that are available to us in our own backyard, and without this kind of gateway, we might never get around to it. Bringing lesser-known wines to the mainstream seems like a big task, especially for a team as lean as this one, but with the right intentions, branding, price points, and mix of approachability and nerdiness, it’s certainly possible. It’s safe to say that Red Hook Winery is on the right track, to say the least.