The idea was simple enough when it first began, Matt Baldassano wanted to make some wine at his apartment in Manhattan to carry on the tradition of his grandfather, and maybe meet a girl or two in the process. But, thanks to the great wine Matt began to produce, and word of mouth, Matt’s “little” wine project quickly blossomed into a full-scale personal winery right in the heart of the East Village and his “project” became much more than just a hobby, it became Manhattan’s version of the “Dallas Buyers Club,” of wine.
When Matt first stumbled upon the apartment that from all appearances now resembles more of a winery than a place where someone also sleeps and eats – yet Matt does both, working around the stacks of oak barrels aging wine in his living room and the chemistry sets used for blending and testing that wine on his counter – he hadn’t intended to create a boutique urban winery, but family tradition and legacy can have a strong pull.
After Matt’s grandfather passed away, the entire family not only mourned the loss of the patriarch, but also the loss of the wine he produced each year. According to the TTB, anyone of legal drinking age can produce up to 200 gallons of wine per year for personal use (200 gallons as long as there are two adults residing in the household), and that’s exactly what Matt’s grandfather was doing: crushing grapes, making wine and then consuming that wine with family and friends. “Immediately after my grandfather died, we first mourned the loss of the future wine he would make, and then drank all of the remaining bottles. After that, we had to decide who in our family was going to be responsible for making the wine,” Matt recently told me as we stood out on his small back patio in the East Village that was overrun with winemaking equipment. It was pretty clear from standing amidst all the equipment who in Matt’s family had been deemed the person to carry on the legacy.
It all started innocently enough. After 2006, when Matt’s grandfather died, he and his cousins decided to carry on the tradition of making the wine, but instead of using the basic tools of their grandfather, they slowly began to upgrade equipment, getting more and more serious – at this point the only thing that remains from what Matt’s grandfather also used is the winepress, everything else is now state of the art. Matt and the cousins became very skilled at making wine and they found others appreciated their creations as well. “We were making wine for the 99%,” Matt told me, “it’s wine we loved to drink, but we’ve never been snobby about it. It was fun to just crush grapes, make wine and see what happens.”
It was the commitment to make wine to share with “the 99%,” or as Matt also likes to say, “non-wine snobs,” that caused him to decide to continue to make wine when he moved back into Manhattan in 2011, but he wasn’t sure exactly where the location of his winemaking efforts was going to be. When Matt first moved into the building where he still makes wine to this day, a typically small apartment building in the East Village, his apartment was on the 3rd floor, and there was no outdoor space to speak of, yet from his window he could see an apartment below that had a sizable patio and would be perfect for his hobby, so he decided to make friends with the tenants.
“I started to get to know the couple that lived in the first floor apartment by offering to walk their dog,” says Matt. “Eventually that led to me asking if I could make wine in their backyard in exchange for giving them a portion of what I made. That resulted in them giving me a key to their apartment so I could come and go as I pleased. Sometimes I’d need to check the wine in the middle of the night or early in the morning and they’d be asleep, so I’d head downstairs, tiptoe through their apartment, check on everything, and then head back upstairs to bed. It was fun for a while, but let’s just say when they decided to move, and I was able to take over their lease, winemaking definitely became easier.”
As Matt’s operations grew, he began to share the experience with his friends, who in turn wanted to bring other people over to his “winery” to share in the festivities. “Making wine, like making beer, is incredibly social, and you can really see how these grapes ultimately turn into delicious booze, so from the beginning it was always ideal to have people around to help me out and see what I was doing. I hoped they wouldn’t just learn, but that maybe they’d want to make wine at their apartments too.”
However, what started out as a few friends and their acquaintances continued to grow and Matt knew he needed to come up with a plan. While it was fun to have people over, the actual winemaking wasn’t cheap, and in addition to the supplies, Matt always found he was also opening bottles for people to drink — there had to be a way to offset costs. That’s when he and his friends Katherine Randel, Katie Peterson, Jasmine Harrison, and sister Alexa Baldassano had an idea: create a wine club in the style of the famous Dallas Buyers Club to offset the costs, while staying completely legal by continuing to only make the allotted amount of wine allowed for personal use by the TTB. The Village Winery Club was born.
The way Village Winery Club works is pretty simple: members buy into the club which helps pay for all winemaking activities and thereby gain access to all of the winemaking events throughout the season. In return, the “shareholders” as Matt calls them, share in the fruits of their labor, receiving their share of the wine they help make for personal consumption when Matt deems it ready to be bottled – which can often take a few years – patience is important. In addition to taking part in the winemaking activities, Matt and his friends work to make the festivities as social as possible, adding tasting opportunities and food pairings to the mix.
Currently Matt crushes fruit and makes wine twice a year with the club, sourcing grapes from California in the fall and South America in the spring. While he’d ultimately like to also use fruit grown in New York, since he is making wine in Manhattan, he’s had a hard time procuring the grapes and that hurdle goes against the part of his mission which is to show others how easy this process can be. “Right now I source the grapes from M&M Wine Grape in Hartford CT, which has access to high-quality fruit from around the world, and they deliver the grape palettes directly to the front of my building; it couldn’t be easier. Plus the fruit I crush is the same fruit being used by many of the big name wineries people in the city would have heard of. I get the same easy access to quality product, the same way homebrewers can use the identical supplies of their favorite craft breweries. It makes the process feel even more legitimate and proves anyone can do this.”
The ease of sourcing also has the added benefit of allowing Matt to make many different styles of wine. When we visited a few weeks ago, there was a Black Moscato Rosé and a California Zinfandel fermenting, California Cabernet being crushed and a Super Tuscan blend aging in the oak barrels piled high in his living room. He then opened recently bottled Carmenere, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc for us to taste and mentioned a few weeks ago that he had crushed whole cluster Chardonnay. The possibilities of what he could make with such a small space seemed endless.
Yet, as Matt’s club continues to grow, he knows he’s going to have to go fully legit soon – his Dallas Buyers Club model can only legally supply so much wine and demand is growing. Matt has big visions for the future, which includes his own winery that would actually allow him to sell his wine to the public via stores and restaurants – he currently is not allowed to, hence the buyers club model – as well as an organization that continues to support home winemakers like himself. “There’s something really awesome about tasting the wines home winemakers create. I’d love for more people to be able to experience that. I have big ideas for how to achieve this goal, but for that I need investors,” says Matt with a chuckle. Until then, if you want to try Matt’s wine, you’re going to have to join the club.