A Rooftop Vineyard Grows in Brooklyn

The streets were desolate as I trekked out to a former shipyard in Brooklyn on a recent frigid winter afternoon. Once I’d cleared the security gate, wandered past chain-link fences, construction debris, and hulking, seemingly deserted warehouses, Building 275's dingy exterior came into view. Where exactly was I headed?

To a vineyard, of course.

Up a flight of stairs, the rooftop door opens to another world. There, set against an expansive view of the Manhattan skyline, rows of twisted grapevines dance in the brisk breeze coming off the East River. Even in the chill of winter, the open-air setting—with its porch swings, corn hole set, hammocks, picnic tables, and green astroturf—recalls a warm summer day. One can easily imagine lazing an afternoon away up here, glass of wine in hand.

Such was Rooftop Reds co-founder Devin Shomaker's vision several years ago, when he was still a student at Finger Lakes Community College's wine program. "I wanted to transform a rooftop into a city park—a space where people really feel like they can relax and get away from it all," he explained. With that goal in mind, he and co-founder Chris Papalia—a wine program classmate—launched Rooftop Reds, New York City's first commercial urban rooftop vineyard, in spring 2015 after raising more than $16,000 on Kickstarter. 

The rooftop vineyard at Rooftop Reds. (All photos courtesy of Rooftop Reds)

Growing grapes on a rooftop in an urban environment presents a unique set of challenges: Wind, elevation, and the heat island effect—a phenomenon in which urban areas are warmer than non-urban areas—are all factors that demand consideration, along with New York City's maritime climate. The building's white, reflective rooftop also plays an important role, said general manager TJ Provenzano. "The sun reflects right off it, and in the summertime when you're out in the middle of the vineyard, it's humming; it's certainly a few degrees warmer than it is on the perimeter," he said.

"It's kind of this climatic, urban, [and] viticulture experiment all wrapped up into one," explained self-proclaimed "weather nerd" Shomaker, adding that for years, he's been driven by the question, "Could I make the best red wine in New York State on a rooftop in Brooklyn?"

"I get to test that water finally," he said.

On the nearly 15,000-square-foot rooftop located in Brooklyn Navy Yard, a once-abandoned industrial complex now in the midst of a major redevelopment project, Shomaker and Papalia today grow five Bordeaux varietals. The vines are planted in a manufactured custom blend of soil (consisting of 40 percent crushed recycled glass to encourage drainage) in bespoke planters neatly aligned on the roof. The five varietals will be field blended, fermented, and then barrel aged in French oak, eventually producing 30 to 40 cases of traditional-style Bordeaux. It's a small amount, and intentionally so. "It's supposed to be a cult wine," Shomaker said.

A selection of Rooftop Reds wines.

The rooftop’s first official harvest will take place this fall—wine made exclusively from on-site grapes likely won't be available until early 2019—but in the meantime, the winery produces three wines made from grapes sourced from New York State's Finger Lakes region. These bottles, along with a carefully-curated selection of wine from other Finger Lakes producers such as Sheldrake Point, Hermann J. Wiemer, and Chateau Lafayette, will be available to customers who visit the rooftop this season. It's a rare opportunity to sample unique, lesser-known wines from the Finger Lakes, an under-appreciated wine region area still largely unknown even amongst New Yorkers.

"The region is being recognized, but it's not translating to sales down in the city quite yet," said Shomaker, who said he fell in love with the Finger Lakes area while in school. “There's this big perception that Finger Lakes wines are all sweet, and that is totally not the case," he continued. He hopes the wines showcased at Rooftop Reds will help shift perspectives of the region, and beyond that, local wine in general. 

"The local food movement is so huge, everybody wants their vegetables grown locally, they're doing their part to eat local, but it's not translating as much to the grapes," lamented Provenzano. "If it grows together, it goes together, and if you're looking for the best pairings for local food, why would you want to fly in your wines from all across the world? We're making such great wines right here in the state." 

Shomaker hopes to expand the vineyard to more rooftops in Brooklyn Navy Yard and perhaps even across the river to a rooftop in Newark, New Jersey—another heavily urban area that could use more green space. "I think Rooftop Reds is such an exciting idea," he said, noting that each city could create its own distinct wine reflective of the community. "It doesn't have to be just New York City."

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