Wine distributor Mark Snyder is determined to restore the faded tradition of Brooklyn winemaking—once practiced routinely in kosher wineries and Italian-American basements—and to utterly transform it. And he’s doing it in Red Hook, with Long Island grapes. If that’s not zany enough, consider his co-conspirators: Bob Foley of Robert Foley Vineyards, maker of cult Napa reds like his signature Claret and Charbono, and Abe Schoener, whose quirky Scholium Project label claims East Coast devotees like chef Colin Alevras, who’s been helping out in Red Hook in his spare time. Even in this year of the urban winery, with the more commercial City Winery and Bridge Vineyards opening in Soho and Williamsburg respectively, the prospect of Foley and Schoener fermenting and blending wines in an unmarked Red Hook storefront might be the oenological equivalent of Alice Waters opening a little café on Van Brunt Street. Unexpected, bizarre, and more than a little thrilling.
Why there? Why them? “I wanted to give something back to Brooklyn,” says Snyder, who grew up in Gerritsen Beach before becoming a sound technician for Peter Frampton and Billy Joel. His obsession with wine led to the launch of his company, Angels’ Share Wines, which distributes Foley and Schoener, among others. He’s got a deeper purpose as well: to change the face of Long Island wine by uncovering its inherent character—something he believes hasn’t emerged yet. To achieve that, Schoener and Foley are willing to try anything, to approach rain- and frost-challenged North Fork grapes—from the Chardonnay they expect to release next spring, to Viognier, Gewürztraminer, and the much-maligned Merlot—with fresh eyes and, more important, fresh palates. This fall, that meant leaving them on the vines to ripen past the conventional point of rot, mildew, and the growers’ consternation. “We won’t try to make California-style wines,” says Foley. “The vineyards and the fruit will teach us what to do.” Snyder’s mission is twofold: to address the disconnect between Long Island wine and the New York restaurant industry, and to build something raw and artisanal in a borough whose essential character—and characters—he sees slipping away. “One by one they’re disappearing,” he says. “What will happen to Di Fara once Dom DeMarco’s gone? Or Ronnie, the guy who delivers my seltzer bottles—who’s going to do that?” During a recent barrel tasting, those antique bottles, their familiar shape and siphons harking back to an earlier Brooklyn era, were lined up alongside the crystal stemware, an apt tableau for a newfangled Red Hook winery.