This Rooftop Vineyard Charts a New Course at the Navy Yard

If Rooftop Reds were allowed to put “Brooklyn Bordeaux” on the label, they certainly would.

It was only a matter of time. In a city that adores its backyard chickens and rooftop honey and farm-to-everything, someone was going to grow grapes on a Brooklyn rooftop. Throw in some stylish branding and a dose of viticulture savvy, and you’ve got yourself a winemaking tour de force.

Meet Rooftop Reds, a bona fide vineyard operation headquartered on a 14,000-square-foot roof at the Navy Yards. Devin Shomaker and Chris Papalia, vintners with freshly minted wine growing certificates, have set up shop in 36 planters, atop a warehouse where hey’re growing five Bordeaux varietals. If they were allowed to put “Brooklyn Bordeaux” on the label, they certainly would.

The origins of this groundbreaking urban vineyard are modest. Shomaker and Papalia met at the Finger Lakes Community College viticulture program. Shomaker had made a very of-our-time decision: to leave a dowdy day job in marketing and pursue his wine dreams. And Papalia, well, he was not too long out of high school, with a highly acute sense of his own path. “I couldn’t even drink wine legally by the time I graduated the program,” Papalia recalls with a smile (he’s 23 now).

Other aspiring winemakers have scouted Brooklyn rooftops for growing spots—and Brooklyn Winery grew grapes in Williamsburg for four years—but Rooftop Reds is the only company currently growing in the borough. Without a winning Kickstarter campaign ($16,820 raised), they might not have even gotten this far. Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have both written about Rooftop Reds, though the focus has largely been its novelty. Surely Shomaker and Papalia are banking on consumers who will pay for the thrill—or novelty—of purchasing Brooklyn’s only homegrown wine. But these guys also have viticulture degrees; they want the wine to be tasty.

Our agrarian idylls were once limited to the country—Shomaker believes it wasn’t so long ago that the wine-buying climate would not have smiled on an industrial backdrop like theirs. Somewhere along the line, however, the public developed a collective fascination with urban growers. Handsome—and well-marketed—outfits like Brooklyn Grange have helped create an alluring environment for upstarts like Rooftop Reds.

Like Long Island, the Navy Yards boast a good maritime warm-weather growing season for Bordeaux varietals. Brooklyn Winery had a good run growing their array of grapes—Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Merlot—and only shut down because of tenancy issues. Shomaker and Papalia have no doubt about their wines’ potential.

This year they’ll produce 15 to 20 cases, with the hope they’ll ramp up to 30 per year in the not-too-distant future. It’s a limited production schedule, but Shomaker sees that as an advantage. “You want to be the prettiest girl at the dance,” he quips, “the one everybody’s asking for. If we always sell out, that can only be good for this company.”

Shomaker and Papalia are already selling bottles, using grapes grown on a 26-acre parcel they own in the Finger Lakes. These bottles still say Rooftop Reds—branding is powerful—but the terroir may vary. Clearly the allure of “grown in Brooklyn” is at the heart of their charm. Shomaker says: “We’re the only vineyard you can take the subway to.” Next stop, Bordeaux.

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Jesse Hirsch

Formerly the print editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, Jesse Hirsch now works as the New York editor for GOOD magazine.