The Red Hook Winery doesn’t just make wine. They are on a unique sort of exploratory mission in winemaking – to plumb the depths of the nuances of terroir in grapes grown on the North Fork of Long Island, by having two revered California winemaking talents, Robert Foley and Abe Schoener, each make their own wines, following their own muses, with grapes harvested from the same field, on the same day, at the same time.
Robert takes a more traditional, controlled approach to making his wines. Abe prefers to let his fly free, with minimal intervention. While Robert and Abe each chart the course for their respective wines, head winemaker Christopher Nicolson is the one who pilots them to their destination, painstakingly tasting and monitoring each barrel day after day, across their two year journey from the vine to the bottle. The ultimate goal of the project, Christopher told us last year, is to:
“…Take a single lot of grapes and make very different wines with them. So we hope to learn something about what makes this varietal of grape, from this specific place, harvested at this specific time, unique, by having each make his own wine with it. And the differences are fascinating, but the similarities are maybe even more fascinating – it might be that the similarities are the thing that tell us about the real identity of this grape from this place, and this time.”
The winery is based on a pier in Red Hook. On Monday night, Sandy’s storm surge swept over it, flooding the space with five feet of water, toppling and soaking stacks of barrels full of aging wines and submerging forklifts, pumps, fermentation tanks and computers. Christopher and crew fear a total loss. We spoke with him about what happened and what comes next.
So Christopher, how did this all unfold for you? How did you prepare?
For a couple days leading up to the storm we prepared as best we could. We sandbagged the front and the back entrances. We elevated as many things as we had room to elevate. We stacked up the barrels and elevated the equipment. But of course there was some stuff that we just didn’t have the tools to elevate, and unfortunately the stuff that we did elevate ended up just toppling over. There’s no way to weigh so many barrels down enough to prevent them from toppling when the water pushes up on them like that. We did what we could but we had no idea what was coming.
We came in on Monday afternoon for the last time, double and triple checking things and scrambling to do everything we could. Once we got home on Monday, we were just listening to the reports on the radio and watching video feeds of the harbor to try to see what was happening with the water levels. Of course, it didn’t look good.
I live in Greenpoint. We came down early the next morning. We drove down knowing it probably wasn’t going to be good, based on the reports we’d heard and the pictures of Red Hook we’d seen online. The water had all receded by the time we got here. It was a pretty intense scene on the pier. All of our poor neighbors of course were going through the same thing as they got a handle on the extent of the damage. Everyone was just like, “What do we do? Look at this! Oh my goodness, what do we do!?” Just a lot of emoting, you know?
We had boarded up the front of the space. The doors and the windows were all smashed. It looked like the planters on the pier had floated up on the surge and crashed into them. We finally got in here through the back door. It was blocked on the inside by a huge pile of stuff that had washed up against it as the water receded. There was some water. The barrels of wine had toppled over in huge piles all over the place. There was a hose whipping around spraying water all over the place. There was wine seeping out of all the barrels and crushed grapes and stems all over the floor…Sorry, I want to say more but I don’t know what to say. It’s just complete devastation.
Of course it was an incredible loss for the O’Connells – the owners of the pier and the Fairway building and a number of other places in the neighborhood and all over Brooklyn. They’ve been in Red Hook forever, and have made the preservation of these historic piers their mission. They were just so eager and keen to try to help all of us which was pretty touching. I guess it’s just that old school Irish New York way of doing things, which is a pretty cool thing to see.
What’s the situation now?
In short, I guess we have to assume total devastation. Surely for the vintage – for all of the wine. We have to assume a total loss until we see where everything is at because the water level rose so significantly. Just about all of our barrels were submerged in the water that came through. The barrels were stacked three high in some places and higher than that in others, and the water just rushed in and floated and toppled everything.
In terms of the equipment, we lost all temperature control. We keep the barrel room here at a very steady temperature and humidity level at all times to hold the wines as they age, and that temperature control is completely gone. So even if some of the barrels themselves weren’t compromised, the loss of temperature and humidity control is devastating. Temperature and humidity control is critical when you’re making wine, and we’ve completely lost that.
We just finished our grape harvest for 2012 a few weeks ago, and have all these new wines in active fermentation in these big steel tanks along the wall. When you’re in the midst of active fermentation, before you move them to barrels to age, you are constantly monitoring what’s happening with the fermentation and making precise adjustments to the temperature to the tanks, and of course since we’ve lost all heating and cooling ability we have to assume that’s all gone. We have to assume everything is lost.
And it’s not just the wines. The forklift, the pumps, everything was submerged, all the machinery, which means that in all likelihood those are all lost as well. The office, the computers, the files…everything.
How much wine was in here?
I’d have to guess. It’s kind of hard to think right now to be perfectly honest. But a few hundred barrels anyway. It doesn’t really matter exactly how much – it’s all of the wine we had.
And it’s particularly difficult for us because we can’t just clean up and make new wine to quickly bring to market. It takes a couple of years to make our wines – two years in the barrel – and this year’s fruit harvest is basically finished so we won’t really even be able to start making wine again until next year’s harvest, a year from now. It’s just devastating.
We have wines in here as old as 2008, some of the ’09, all the 2010 vintage and the 2011. Just thinking of all the time and all the work that’s gone into each of these barrels…We think of our wines almost as if they’re little people. We put so much care and work into raising and developing these little people, these wines, day in and day out over years and years. There’s the time you spend at the vineyards picking the fruit, the years in the barrel, the time spent bottling and sending the wines out into the world…You just can’t get that back, all that time and work. Ugh.
And it’s not just us – we work very closely with our growers out on the North Fork. I haven’t had a chance to talk to any of them yet. I hope their fields weren’t flooded. I hope they’re ok.
So where do you go from here?
Right now, we’ve divided up the tasks of documenting all the damage as carefully as we can. One of us will focus on the tasting room, another on the equipment and machinery, another on the wines…there’s so much to do.
I guess the main hope right now is just that we can preserve ourselves in some way. We hope we can preserve ourselves fiscally. In that sense we really are at the mercy of our insurers and government agencies like FEMA. I guess that’s just kind of it. Either we figure out some way to recoup our losses from our insurers, or…that’s it I guess. But we have hope that we’ll find a way to come back and keep going. We’ll do everything we possibly can to make that happen.
The Red Hook Winery is located on Pier 41, off Van Dyke Street between Ferris and Conover, in Red Hook.
Those interested in helping in the effort to clean up and rebuild Red Hook can contact The Red Hook Initiative (718-858-6782), who will be matching up volunteers and donations with local businesses in need. Or just show up – just about everyone in the neighborhood could use some help.