In Food + Drink

Wine-Tasting At The World’s First Urban Rooftop Vineyard

When you hear the word ‘vineyard’ what images come to mind? Likely it’s a mixture of grapevines filled with fruit, rolling hills and quaint villas set on plots of verdant land.

It would be less likely that you’d picture the rooftop of an industrial complex in Brooklyn, New York. And yet, you’d be right in doing so.

In 2016, Rooftop Reds opened its doors in Brooklyn Navy Yard and with this, became the world’s first urban rooftop vineyard. Yes, vineyard.

rooftop reds

Making your way to Rooftop Reds can be somewhat of a journey if you’re unfamiliar with the area. Brooklyn Navy Yard is a large shipping enclosure located on a relatively nondescript street, so be prepared to ask for directions at least once.

Once set on the right track, you’ll make your way through a mostly lifeless lot filled with abandoned buildings and a few parked cars. Lift your gaze, however, and you’ll spot some red umbrellas and strings of fairy lights colouring the top of one of the buildings.

Follow the trail and eventually, you’ll come to a large, grey door with an A4 sheet of paper taped to the window. You’ve arrived.

Climb the four flights of stairs (use of the elevator is prohibited), and at the top, you’ll be greeted by rows of grapevines set against a backdrop of the New York skyline.

rooftop reds

The space, which makes an impression with the above combination alone, is the perfect place for an afternoon vino, complete with hammocks, cornhole games, picnic tables, and even a large screen for outdoor movie showings.

“[We] were interested in how we could fuse two passions, which are grape-growing and wine-making, with living in an epicentre like New York City,” says Clara Kann, the venue’s General Manager.

And, as with any world first, it wasn’t achieved overnight. The founder of Rooftop Reds, Devin Shomaker, formulated the idea between 2012 and 2013 while at viticulture and oenology school in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

“This [the rooftop vineyard] on a much smaller scale was his senior project for about 50 grapevines on his brothers Windsor Terrace [a Brooklyn neighbourhood] rooftop,” Kann shares. “He wanted to see if they could survive an urban winter, and they totally thrived.”

rooftop reds

Despite what your assumptions might tell you about urban plant life, those first few vines and the grapes that currently inhabit the rooftop have weathered the seasons with ease, Kann explains.

“That’s usually one of the biggest questions we get up here: what do you do with your grapevines in winter? But it’s actually, as far as cool-climate regions go, it’s pretty temperate. They lose their leaves, they go dormant, and they wake up in the spring,” she says.

Rooftop Reds’ vines are now in their sixth growing season and have been harvested twice: October 2017 and October 2018.

“They’re all red Bordeaux varieties,” Kann says. “Cabernet Sauvignon; Cabernet Franc; Malbec; Merlot; Petit Verdot. It’s fantastic because it’s [the vineyard] a warm climate bubble in an otherwise cool climate region. We are more on par with Napa’s growing conditions than any vineyard on the East Coast. We are the warmest vineyard in all of New York state.”

These are the conditions that allowed Rooftop Reds to produce their first drop made exclusively from fruit grown on the rooftop vines; the 2017 Rooftop Reds 3431 wine. “There’s this term, ‘growing degree days’ and that’s actually what our 2017 vintage is named after,” says Kann.

Number 3431 is not insignificant; it’s actually “the total heat accumulation for 2017 for that harvest, which is higher than what Sonoma got to for 2017.”

rooftop reds

The remainder of the wine list is made up of Rooftop Red varietals produced with fruit from the Finger Lakes or purchased from “grape growers that share a similar ethos to ours”.

If you’re looking for a standout drop, Kann recommends the Traminette and Gewürztraminer as a start.

For a more extensive introduction, however, wine flights are available in rosé (Sashay Rosé), white (Alsatian Getaway) and red (Bordeaux Bae) at about $30AUD for three 60 millilitre tasters. Additionally, the bar offers tours and tastings every Wednesday at 7pm for about $37AUD. This experience includes four wine and cheese tastings and a tour through the space.

“A huge main pillar for this business is, well two [are]: education and accessibility,” says Kann. “…you can pay $2.75 [USD] and take the F train to the York Street stop and come up for free [with a reservation] to a vineyard.”

And once there, you can feel comfortable discussing the wine you’re tasting irrespective of your knowledge level.

“…you don’t have to be a French fry expert to be like: ‘I like these fries, I don’t like these fries,’” says Kann. “Do you like it [the wine]? Would you have another glass?

“[We’re] trying to bring fun back into wine. It doesn’t have to be so serious.”

(All images: Rooftop Red / Stephanie Nuzzo)

Published 04 September, 2019