Brooklyn Winery is working hard to put New York winemaking on the map. Set in the heart of Williamsburg, the winery is run by winemaker Conor McCormack and headed up by owners Brian Leventhal and John Stires.
The team's journey into urban winemaking came relatively out of the blue. A little over five years ago, Leventhal and Stires were just two guys living in New York City, working for an internet startup. On weekends, the pair would moonlight as winemakers at a co-production space in New Jersey. It was there that inspiration struck. At the time, no one was making wine commerially in New York's urban setting. As aspiring entrepreneurs, both Leventhal and Stires saw the potential to capitalize on their fellow New Yorkers' love for all things local, and decided that making their wine closer to home was the perfect opportunity for them to do so.
Conor McCormack, a seasoned winemaker from California, joined Leventhal and Stires in 2010. Nine months later, Brooklyn Winery opened its doors to the public. In their first year of production, the urban winemakers were turning-out 2500 cases of wine. Now, they’re making close to 8000 cases a year. Despite scaling production, the artisanal touch that sets this urban winery apart is still fully present. Each batch is hand-bottled and McCormack, now head winemaker at the winery, can tell the story of each set of grapes that goes into every bottle.
Born in Ireland but raised in California, McCormack is a tenured winemaker with past experience that includes several stints at other urban wineries - most notably, Crushpad, as well as Rutherford Hill Winery, Brehm Vineyards, Audubon Cellars and White Salmon Vineyards in Washington state. Despite studying music in college and briefly working as a behaviorial therapist after graduating, McCormack was destined for something different. In 2003, he responded to a Craigslist ad for a wine harvest intern, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
After serveral years of winemaking on the West Coast, McCormack was ready for new change - so in 2010, he relocated to the East Coast, bringing his wealth of knowledge and winemaking skills to Brooklyn, where his soon-to-be partners Leventhal and Stires had just found the location for their soon-to-be winery in a former nightclub space. With almost herculean effort, the team completely gutted the space in nine months, and wine tanks were installed just two days after the cement had dried. Next, the threesome enlisted the help of an interior design team, focusing on locally-sourced, sustainable materials.
Before the fully-refurbished nighclub could become operational, the team needed to procure their winemaking equipment - a task that inevitably fell to the industry veteran in the group: McCormack. However, despite the fact that this seasoned winemaker knew exactly what he needed, he wasn't familar with any local suppliers where he could source the equipment.
The urban winemaker finally settled on a major supplier located in nearby Westchester. They had a sizable reach but were close enough to provide hands-on troubleshooting for any issues regarding equipment, supplies, shipping and transport.
For other items, the NYC winery was able to source through referrals from fellow winemakers. For example, many of their French-origin barrels were purchased second-hand from Chimney Rock Winery, a California-based winemaker who McCormack has been friends with for years. They're "vetted,” he says, which is particularly important when purchasing used equipment.
With the tanks and grape crusher in place, McCormack's next task was sourcing grapes and transporting them to the urban winery's Williamsburg location. Fortunately, the infrastructure for transporting grapes fresh from harvest has been around for a while. McCormack chose to select grapes from a variety of locations including northern California, Long Island and the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.
Once the grapes have been selected, they're blasted in cooling tunnels to perserve the fruit during transportation and maintain cell integrity. Next, they're loaded onto refrigerated trucks outfitted with tracking devices, which allows McCormack to catch any unexpected pit-stops or changes in the truck's temperature during the grapes' journey to his urban winery. As a crafstman making a small batch, premium product, "transparency" McCormack tells us, "is key" when it comes to quality control.
Brooklyn Winery's mission is three-fold. Most weekdays, their tasting room serves house wines, as well as seasonal fare, to a crowd of 500-600 customers. The urban winery also provides the perfect backdrop for private events. Everything from weddings to private dinners can happen on any given weekend, with tours and tastings often taking place on Sundays. For up-to-date operating hours, the team recommends consulting their website.
With so much foot traffic through the space on any given day of the week, the NYC winery stores about 40 tanks off-site until September, when grapes have been harvested and production officially begins. McCormack says organizing the harvest equipment in their Williamsburg location is comparable to “a giant game of tetris".
The winery’s current line of 18 wines includes white, red, and rosé varieties, all sold on-site, as well as online (via their website), and in various retail shops and restaurants throughout New York City. With two new ventures on the horizon, the future looks pretty rosé(!) for the Brooklyn Winery team.
As for McCormack, his next steps include growing wholesale accounts, as well as ramping up marketing for the NYC winery. Still, he never forgets where he came from, leaving us with one last piece of cautionary wisdom for all the aspiring winemakers out there: “Make mistakes… or even better...learn from other people’s mistakes". We couldn't agree more.