When you ask the owner of a winery or a vineyard how they got into the wine business you tend to hear three familiar stories. For many, especially in the Old World, the vineyard has been in the family for generations. Other people, after success in the traditional business world, seek out what looks like a romantic life in wine country. A smaller group, after years spent making wine for others, strikes out on their own. Brooklyn Winery? None of the above.
Five years ago, Brooklyn Winery co-owners Brian Leventhal and John Stires were toiling away at a Silicon Alley startup. Today they run one of the most successful urban wineries in the country. All it took was a few trips to New Jersey.
Working At A Startup In Manhattan. Making Wine In New Jersey.
So what was the impetus to start Brooklyn Winery?
We were at a tech startup in Manhattan totally unrelated to this operation. We got involved in making our wine recreationally in this little place in New Jersey. It’s not a winery. It’s called a home winemaking center. And it piggybacks on this very bizarre post-Prohibition law that most people don’t know about, which states that you can legally produce 200 gallons of wine in your home for personal consumption every year. That’s about 1,000 bottles.
Home winemaking centers are not wineries. They’re not actually allowed to produce wine that’s commercially sold. They allow people to come to their space. They have some basic winemaking equipment. For the most part they bring in some fruit from California and you make your wine there. You take it home at the end of the process, a year usually, and you have wine to drink.
We did that for three years with some coworkers and we loved it. We were the only people from New York who went there. It was all geared towards New Jersey Italian families.
The wine was drinkable, but you had your reds out in a year, which is obviously way too short of a timeframe for big reds to age. They didn’t do any extended aging because they needed to turn their barrels over. They didn’t want to have two vintages aging at the same time. You designed your own label, and they printed it out on their little Hewlett-Packard printer. It was a little family operation.
The Initial Spark
We thought ‘this is fun, but it’s not easy to get to.’ None of us had cars, so we’re taking the PATH to another train to a bus. It was brutal.
That kind of sparked the idea. If we’re willing to go out to New Jersey to do this, why doesn’t something exist in New York where people can make their own wine?
And that was the initial concept for Brooklyn Winery. It was opening a winery, done the right way, not a home winemaking center, actually a winery, but still this concept of client winemaking, with a winemaker and the right facility and proper aging time and so forth.
When did you guys come to the decision, screw it, we’re going to quit our jobs?
February 2010. The idea came about in August 2009. We spent 6 months while we were working at our other job formulating – making sure the idea worked. We actually formed the LLC in November 2009. That was the first $225 dollars we spent out of our own pockets. So we were a company. We still didn’t know if we were actually doing this, but we were a company.
We started to build a very basic website, because that was our background – in web stuff – so we could do that without paying anyone. We built the business plan over Christmas of 2009. I had very preliminary conversations with some people about investing, but very preliminary, no real commitments or anything.
Why Williamsburg in the first place? I think everyone knows that when you guys were opening Williamsburg was having its renaissance, etc. But was it strategic?
We chose Williamsburg for a couple reasons. If you put aside the renaissance of Williamsburg, the first was zoning. It’s as simple as that. We needed a space that had this interesting mixed-use zoning where you could do manufacturing and commercial.
There aren’t actually that many places when you look at a zoning map of New York City that allow for manufacturing that are in neighborhoods that you want to be in. Our business model was going to include some type of hospitality so we couldn’t just be in a neighborhood that nothing existed in.
And Williamsburg fit those restrictions & desirables?
They rezoned Brooklyn in 2006 to allow for a lot more residential building. That rezoning is what made Williamsburg what it is today, because it allowed all the big buildings by the water and so forth to be put up.
The funny thing is they kept some manufacturing in Williamsburg with the rezoning. It got as specific as this side of North 8th Street that we’re on we could do what we’re doing but across the street – literally on the other side of the street of North 8th – we would not have been able to do this. How they made their decisions I have no idea, but it really kind of honed us in to where could we do this legally and then from there which neighborhoods would have the most people in them and where the biggest growth was going on. When you actually look at those together, Williamsburg very quickly jumped to the top.
A 5 Month Sprint To The Fall Harvest
How long did it take you to find a suitable space with all those constraints?
We started looking at spaces, probably toward the end of 2009 – saw that this space was available at the beginning of 2010 and then it took about 5 months to actually go from seeing the space was available to actually having a lease signed. We didn’t have a back-up, which made it very nerve-wracking for us. They say in real estate you always need to have a second choice because you never know what’s going to happen, but we got very fortunate that we were able to get this space.
We saw this space come on the market in January 2010, so that was really the last thing that made it real. We realized if we got this space – and I’m already getting a little bit of interest on the investor side – and we’ve got this business plan that’s written and we just have so much to do we can’t work full-time . . . then screw it, what’s the worst that’s going to happen here? If we don’t go for this we’re going to regret it more than if we went for it and it failed. We can always get new jobs. So we quit in February 2010.
February to June was probably the most intense five months we ever experienced. It was just John and me. There was no one else. We had to raise capital. We found the space, but we had to go from finding it to actually getting a lease signed, which with commercial real estate is a very arduous process.
We had to find a winemaker. We had to figure out all the the legal and licensing issues. We had to get the lease signed, start renovations, have our winemaker hired, capital raised, all so we could hit 2010 harvest so we wouldn’t fall a year behind. Grapes could be coming in as soon as mid-September, so . . .
So everything had to fall into place at the same time to avoid a potentially devastating setback in terms of missing the fall harvest?
We didn’t realize how daunting it was when we took it on, but it was nothing beyond perseverance. And that was it. It all kind of came together. Good times!
From the point of taking the space to what we’re seeing now with all the wine equipment in and redone, how long did that take?
When we took over the space it was an old run-down nightclub. The room we’re actually standing in had a wooden dance floor over it. We tore up the dance floor when we got in and there was a very old preexisting concrete slab that was there. For a winery one of the most important things is drainage and having a floor that slopes appropriately because you’re constantly cleaning in a winery. A nightmare for a winemaker is pooling of water. So even though these floors look old now these floors are actually only 4 years old.
The biggest piece of construction when we moved in, in June 2010, was tearing out all the preexisting concrete and pouring a whole new slab for the winery and barrel room. That was about 3,500 square feet of concrete that we poured. We did it with floor drains. There’s floor drains in the middle and then the concrete angles appropriately so we don’t get any pooling of water in the space.
And then there was all the interior design throughout the space. But basically we moved in June 2010, got the winery open by September 2010 – so super fast, and it was a crazy timeline – and then we got the wine bar in its first phase open by October. So a month later.
We’re looking at 5 or 6 tanks.
The winery’s really gone through two iterations. Initially we had much less equipment. So these three tanks right here were all we opened with. That was it. Those were the tanks we moved into the space with in 2010. We made 2500 cases in 2010.
2010 – 2500 cases?
2500 cases in 2010. We had the client program where people were making their own wine.
That was the plan you started out with. Are you doing that anymore?
No, we’re not doing that anymore. We discontinued that after 2011. We did it for two years.
Pivoting Away From The Plan
I think what’s interesting from a business perspective is how many times you guys realized what was or wasn’t working and made changes and were willing to say what wasn’t working.
That’s something we take a lot of pride in. We’ve constantly evolved and been willing to change the business model. We don’t believe we would be where we are if we didn’t make the changes we made.
Back to that original plan…
It was great in theory; it was challenging in practice from a production perspective, to start and stop production for every group. Scheduling – people are very busy in New York vs. New Jersey, so if fruit was coming in a day later or a day earlier than what you initially told people, rescheduling them to come in was just an absolute nightmare.
I hate when there are things that are not going right that are out of your control. That’s not how you want to start a business.
So we realized the quality of what we could do and what our winemaker could do. Combine that with the challenges with this program, and it just made sense to have all the wine actually made under the Brooklyn Winery label.
It would just give us much more growth potential and things we could do as a business. It also took a lot of stress off the business. We were asking people to spend six, seven thousand dollars on wine. It was a clunky sales process that it’s easier not to have to deal with. So we killed the entire program.
All the money for the business was raised off that initial idea and I was like, you know what, this isn’t the right idea. We’ll still be successful – but we’ll be a lot more successful if we do something different.
And all your investors were cool with it?
No one said no!
(We’re standing in a room surrounded by fermentation tanks. We walk toward the street.)
This is our main event venue. We built this space. This room was an open air courtyard when we got the space. About a year in we realized the events were going to be a pretty substantial part of the business so we actually enclosed this with a glass roof. We continued the reclaimed wood theme with this wall. We put in the living succulent garden here.
We’re standing in it and it feels like we’re standing outside. There’s a New York City sidewalk right behind those doors.
We wanted to make this feel as outside as possible without having people having to bear the elements. We’re not big fans of outdoor space because there are just so few days that it’s actually usable space. We wanted to make this room climate controlled and to be able to use it every day of the year. You can actually open these doors so you can have the room open to the street if you want to.
How many weddings do you do?
Right now we’re two a weekend and starting in July we’ll go to three a weekend.
A Rooftop Vineyard In Booming Brooklyn
We followed Brian upstairs, past sales offices and a second floor prep kitchen, out a door, onto the roof. It’s a beautiful day. A nightmarish winter has finally come to an end. But it’s far from serene. Jackhammers and bulldozers and the construction workers who wield them surround a rooftop dotted with young vines in wooden planters.
What’s growing up here?
We just trimmed the vines. They’re not big right now. We actually just hit bud break. You can see they were much bigger, but we trimmed everything down. These vines are only a year old right now, so they’re very young. These were all grown in a nursery in the Finger Lakes. We have an assortment of Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cab Franc.
We have one vine that’s a year older that we started to trellis last year. That’s from Long Island actually. We got this two years ago, so we had one vine two years ago. We’re going to trellis this entire roof this year for all of these as they grow up. But this vine will probably produce some fruit this year.
You often hear that one of the best ways to make great wine is to stress the fruit. So clearly we’re in the middle of Brooklyn, we’re in a stressful situation, but what do you actually do when you’re putting it in a planter like this to stress the fruit?
Nothing. This is stressful enough.
There’s a construction site on the land behind you facing North 9th.
Those will be apartments right there. So they’re going to have a great view into our vineyard.
And that building is being taken down too [pointing at a building being actively ripped down].
That’s going to be another building.
It’s insane how fast this neighborhood is growing. It’s absolutely insane. We’re surrounded by construction on three sides.
This has gone up in less than two months. All this. It’s nuts. And the same thing’s going to be right here [pointing at the active demolition site]. This whole thing is going to be another building. This used to be a CrossFit gym. It’s now rubble. This is what’s happening in Williamsburg. It really is. It’s crazy.
Brooklyn Winery Today
We’re back inside, in the barrel room. Through a glass window we can see the fermentation tanks in the other room. A couple of weeks later we’ll return to meet winemaker Conor McCormack and see, first-hand, how wine gets bottled in a room where people get married.
From an entrepreneurship perspective it’s inspiring.
It’s scary, but you’ve got to trust yourself. That said, we don’t do it on gut. We’re very data-driven. We’re constantly making sure that numbers and data are on the appropriate tracking. We spend hours in Excel just making sure all the decisions we’re making are the right decisions.
What does that mean, the ‘right decisions?’
We spent four hours this morning determining what grapes to buy this year based on our past consumption and our growth initiatives, because we now have to plan for reds – we’re planning for 2016 and beyond, even into 2017. And for our whites for 2015 and into 2016 – so it’s like oh my god, we have to now know what we’re going to be doing as a business two to three years from now.
And we’re not in steady state yet. We’re going to be growing. We need to bring in the right mix of grapes. We know what our capacity is here in terms of total production but what’s the mix? How much Merlot versus how much Cabernet Sauvignon? We realized we weren’t actually bringing in enough Pinot Noir so we needed to ramp up how much Pinot we were bringing in. We were bringing in too much Cab last year so we need to cut back.
The data we’re collecting with the consumption in the space helps us make the decisions for what to bring in in future vintages. It’s really interesting. It’s a very good exercise to go through.
So right now, we’re in the barrel room. It’s pretty tight in here. You’ve got rows and rows of barrels and some pallets with boxes on them stocked up to the ceiling. What’s that about?
The barrel room is pretty full right now because we just got a lot of glass in, so this is all glass.
We got in glass for Riesling and the Zinfandel in that tank [outside of the barrel room]. We have all the glass in for bottling.
So the bottling comes in to you? How are you guys bottling?
We hand bottle. We’re at the tipping point.
Can you show me where you hand bottle and how you do that?
It’s all done in that other room. We have small machines for each step as opposed to an automated system that pushes the bottle through automatically. We have a person operating each station. It’s the same equipment that’s on a bottling line but each one is a manual station and the bottle gets passed to the next person.
How many bottles are you doing like that?
We can do a max of about 200 cases a day, whereas a bottling line can do 5 times that. And that’s going really hard. 200 is pushing it.
How many friends are you paying to come and help?
Usually people are down for one day and then they never want to do it again. It’s manual labor, but we don’t have room for a bottling line in here so unfortunately it’s one of our pain points right now.
Two weeks later we headed back to Brooklyn to meet Conor. We took turns at different stations on the bottling line, corking bottles, securing foil, applying labels, and putting the bottles into cases. Just as Brian promised we don’t ever intend to do that again. We hope to hear more from Conor soon, as the wine Brooklyn Winery is making merits its own attention.