Exploring the Unique Taste of Red Hook Winery

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Out there in the Brooklyn equivalent of the Wild Wild West, there is—believe it or not—a real winery in Red Hook, and it’s no punch line. They make serious wine, made by serious winemakers, with California pedigrees. In an outpost such as this, it is a labor of love, and much love has gone into this project. It’s located in one of those old waterfront factory buildings, with views of the Verrazano Bridge, Ellis Island, and the Statue Of Liberty on one side of the building. Through the winery out to the other side of the building looms the lower Manhattan skyline.

The tasting room is elegant, and very much industrial Old Brooklyn. It would make a great location for a special event, or a movie set. The winery part is classic with giant stainless steel tanks, and oak wood casks. They have crushers, and a bottling and labeling plant. They’re ready to go. It’s in a spectacular location, and even though it is the proverbial trip to the country on public transportation, it is a rewarding and revelatory journey. I have never been to the Smith Street subway station, which I got off at for Red Hook, for instance. It turns out, as I sort of suspected, that it is the highest elevated subway station (at 87.5 feet) in the world! It was built that way in 1933 to accommodate regulations for now long gone tall mast shipping on the Gowanus Canal.

Grapes are not grown in Brooklyn, but we in New York City live within a pleasant day’s drive of two of the finest grape growing areas in the country—The Finger Lakes in upstate New York and the newer North Fork of Long Island. The wine makers, Robert Foley and Abe Schoener, who are based out in Napa California, along with resident wine maker Christopher Nicolson, find enthusiastic farmers and pick out their own estates—which are specific sections of grapes on the farms, get them grown to their specifications, and delivered to Brooklyn in time for the crush, the process that begins the journey of fruit to wine. The two California makers have very different tastes and techniques, with Foley the more traditional and Schoener the one who goes out on a limb. It seems like Nicolson is the resident middle, firmly in both camps, learning from, and influencing both.

red hook winery oak casks

If you are a California wine connoisseur, then you know who these two guys are. I tried wine from both philosophies. To my palate, the Schoener method is very reminiscent of Burgundy, France, my favorite type of wine. Burgundy, is a very small wine region, way smaller than Bordeaux. As a result, the wine from there is produced in small quantities, limited, and therefore, costly. The Red Hook version is not cheap either, but a lot less than the French. If you rationalize that a bottle of Red Hook from the winery or a store costs what ordering a non-descript wine in a restaurant costs, you can splurge for, in my opinion, a great bottle of wine that tastes very much like a Montrachet, creamy, and buttery, but not like a Napa chardonnay; decidedly French.

The specific wine I am referring to is ‘The Nereides of the East, 2010’—a crazy, long name, and a Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc made under the direction of Schoener. This is a great bottle of wine, people! I also really enjoyed a Cabernet Sauvignon Jamesport vineyard, 2008, a Foley directed, Bordeaux style, red. I got to taste a Merlot from the Jamesport Vineyard, a Cabernet Franc from the Finger Lakes upstate, and an Orange wine, a 2010 ‘Vipolze’ Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay blend SK Reserve, a pretty unusual wine making concept that I’d never heard of. It’s a skin fermented white wine, which results in an orange sort of color because it’s fermented on the grape skins. In white wine, the skins are removed in the fermenting process, while the grape skins remain for the reds. The concept works with these Orange wines, which are all Abe Shoener directed.

The wine is nice, unique, and certainly worth trying. Robert Foley directs pretty much all of the reds. Nicholson works with both winemakers, but Foley and Schoener do not collaborate. It’s a very interesting concept, like two distinct wineries. Owner Mark Snyder—longtime tech for Billy Joel (yes, that Billy Joel), is dedicated, but hands off. He lets the masters do their thing. Good owners put the pieces in place, and get out of the way.

red hook winery casks 2

A few years ago, we went to Burgundy France to experience the wine at the source. It was more beautiful than we could have imagined, with Medieval Castles, draw bridges, and moats. Cote-d’Or, Burgundy, is a Department of France that’s off the beaten tourist path. We stayed in an old castle that had been turned into a hotel. We had no idea it was there till we came around a bend and saw it. Around every turn is a steep hill with grapes growing to the top. In the town of Chablis, we pulled into the driveway of a man’s house with a small winery sign outside. He came out, gestured to his garage, and we waited for him to slide open the door to his tiny winery. We tasted some great wine, and bought a few bottles to have back at the castle. Red Hook, and the winery reminded me of that experience. The streets are weird, and around every block is a strange, new surprise. At the waters edge, in the historic old factory area is this little winery where you can taste and buy these special wines and experience that weird feeling of discovering something for your self, in a city where everyone has discovered everything.

The tasting room at Red Hook Winery is open daily from 11am to 5pm, but I’d call to make sure. It’s a real trip to get there. Tours and tastings are weekends only. There is a small fee, depending on what you want to do. (Cheese, tour, tastes, etc.) You can bring lunch, get wine and hang outside with the fresh air and the views.

For more on Red Hook Winery, head HERE.

red hook winery stainless steel tanks

red hook winery smith street station