If you happen to visit Brooklyn Winery at its Williamsburg address, the first thing you’ll notice is the bar. Take a harder look and you’ll see it has several event spaces. It’s an impressive venue for sure, but unless you have a VIP access, you won’t see their most unique asset: a fully operational winery. Take a wrong turn and you might find yourself in full-on fermentation land; they house stainless steel tanks and oak barrels filled with the juice of pinot noir, cabernet franc, chardonnay, zinfandel and more at their spot on N 8th Street. You could say that they’re party in the front, fermentation in the back.
These closed quarters are head winemaker Conor McCormack’s domain. McCormack spends his time either making wine or traveling to vineyards to select the grapes. Seventy percent of the grapes come from New York State, which includes all the whites plus merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdots (the remaining 30 percent come in from California because they simply don’t grow as well in New York).
McCormack moved to Brooklyn from California in 2010 to become the first winemaker at Brooklyn Winery (he got the job by answering a Craig’s List ad). Owner and founder of Brooklyn Winery Brian Leventhal, a self-described “manufacturer at heart,” had been making wine on a recreational basis and was ready to venture into an entrepreneurial effort that combined his love for wine and hospitality. Despite knowing that Brooklyn Winery was going to be an exercise in outsourcing grapes from around the country, McCormack left the sunny skies and hallowed vineyards of California to begin the winery with Leventhal and his partner, John Stires. Their first year in business they made 2,500 cases of wine. In 2013, they made 9,000.
These days Brooklyn Winery has begun to outgrow its crowded back room as the grapes continue to roll in. The little winery that could is now a full-fledged pioneer in the way of urban wine making. Their most recent harvest has officially concluded, and according to McCormack, it was a long one. It started in mid-September with the first grapes coming in from California and ended on November 20 with New York State grapes that ripened later due to last year’s especially brutal winter.
We stopped by a few weeks back when they were pressing a seven ton lot of merlot from the North Fork of Long Island that had just finished fermentation. As McCormack described, “pressing is the process of separating the liquids from the grape skins and seeds — [it] is really the moment the grapes officially become wine.”
To follow the pressing procces, start with the wide shot of the production facility in the gallery above and scroll to the right:
1. According to McCormack, “This is a good overall shot of our production facility in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The press is at the center of the photo with our fermentation tanks lining the walls in the back.”
2-5. McCormack (right) and Leventhal (left) look on as the fermentation tank drains onto the incline belt, which delivers the juice and grapes to the press.
6. 2014 merlot grapes from Long Island as they’re being separated from the grape skins.
7. McCormack tastes the “varying degrees of pressure” during the press cycle to determine when to make the press cut. Pressing too hard can extract unwanted bitterness and other harsh flavors.
8. Chuck Gergley, cellar master at Brooklyn Winery, controls the flow of the “free run wine” draining from the tank to ensure the skins don’t come rushing out.
9-11. A close up of the tank.
12. Wine dropping down into the press, guided into place with a makeshift funnel.
13. Fermented merlot grapes and wine on the incline traveling to the press.
14. They use a wide mouth shovel to extract the grape skins.
15. They dig out the tanks from the inside while making sure that the remaining skins in the tank do not cascade out too rapidly.
16. One of their harvest interns, Ben Parniuk, nimbly climbs into the fermentation tank so he can dig out the remaining grape skins. It’s one of the more fun harvest jobs.
17-18. The best and only way to get the remaining skins out of the tank is to get get dirty.
19. McCormack pushes Merlot grape skins into the corners of the press to make room for more.
20. Assessing the fill level of the press to ensure maximum efficiency of the equipment.
21. 2014 Merlot in the catch pan underneath the press where it briefly collects before making its way to barrel to be aged for about two years.
22. Manually pushing through the cap of skins exposes the intense color pickup up on this 2014 skin fermented riesling from the Finger Lakes.
Photo credit: Clay Williams