Brooklyn, NY is one of my favorite places to explore from the street level, but recently I had a chance to see it from a higher level.. the roof tops! Have you ever imagined wine growing on a rooftop in the middle of a city? Well, farmers, chefs, and vintners are claiming a stake in every available square foot of space whether it is on the ground or in the air in various cities throughout the United States. Rooftops in Brooklyn are now home to Brooklyn Grange, Eagle Street Rooftop, and Rooftop Reds.
Laura Rosenberg (a chef and instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan) and I spent one Friday afternoon (it was the one beautiful sunny and unseasonably warm Friday in April) with Devin Shomaker and Chris Papalia co-founders of Rooftop Reds to learn about how Rooftop Reds came to be.
Devin hails from Arlington Virginia and graduated from George Mason University with a marketing degree. He worked in various marketing jobs but never really enjoyed what he was doing. He took a break to help his older brother launch a swim school in China for several months in 2010. He relocated back to Washington D.C, working with startups for two years before following his passion and enrolling in the Finger Lakes Community College’s Viticulture & Wine Technology program. He officially opened RoofTop Reds, the first commercial rooftop vineyard in the States, in 2016 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This is an edited version of our discussion with Devin and his partner, Chris, who he met while studying at The Finger Lakes Community College program.
What drew you to study viticulture in the Finger Lakes Region versus California for example?
The Finger Lakes Community College’s Viticulture & Wine Technology program is one of the few programs that offer hands-on research opportunities for students. It is a two year program and students are required to complete 2 practicums (hands-on training in all facets of the winemaking process). One season you have your hands in the grapes and the next season you are working on the production aspects of winemaking.
I had lived here in the past and I knew I wanted to come back to Brooklyn to work and live. My other brother Thomas lives in Brooklyn. In 2013, he and I started a pilot project with 50 vines to test out the environment before launching Rooftop Reds on the rooftop of Building 275 located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was officially closed in 1966 at a time when they employed 9,000 workers. Steiner Studios, a state-of-the-art filming and production studio opened in 2005 and since then, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation has been bringing in many small and midsize companies to fill the vacant space.
The roof comprises 15,000 square feet of space. Our focus is to bring back more green space to our cities. We hope we can do our part and work with various partners to create a more sustainable environment.
Our climate here in Brooklyn is actually closer to Sonoma agriculturally than Long Island and the Finger Lakes. Currently, our vines are 3 weeks ahead of our counterparts in Long Island.
What type of grapes does Rooftop Reds use?
The Finger Lakes is known for aromatic white varieties like Riesling and Gewurztraminer. They are now experimenting with cool-climate reds like Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. Rooftop Reds varietals include: cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot, and merlot.
All production is handled upstate with minimal production here in Brooklyn (approximately 30 cases are produced from the rooftop vines and sold in our tasting room). A tasting room is located on the rooftop along with a turfed tent covered area for more formal tastings. There are hammocks set up on the far end of the roof with turf and several tables. If people get bored of the view and company, there are several sand toss games set up amongst the planters. A gazebo and swing is located to the side of the tasting room. It’s a perfect venue for an evening out with friends or book it for a private event.
We had urban planter boxes designed specifically for our rooftop vineyard. I’m sure you can imagine the challenges associated with irrigation, climate, nutrients in the soil, etc. Our parent company in the Finger Lakes is Point of the Bluff Vineyards.
Where do most of your customers come from?
We have had a tremendous amount of press from European publications so many of our guests are Europeans who have read about us. We have received incredible press from Globe TV, Fox, The New Yorker, and Luxury Travel Magazine.
Do you offer any events or tours?
Our 2017 wine list release party was held on April 22nd in which we hosted 9 prominent wineries from upstate New York along with chocolates from Mast Brothers. Other events have included Ribs and Rose, Easter Egg Hunt, a winter blending event with Point of the Bluff Vineyards, Whiskey & Wine Tour with Kings County Distillery located in the old Paymaster building behind Rooftop Reds, and Friday Movie-Pizza-Wine nights throughout the summer.
What is your one of your favorite pairings?
A chili-based peanut thai dish with a glass of Point of the Bluff Riesling. We sampled a flight of wines consisting of Rooftop Red Cabernet Franc Rose, 2015 Sheldrake Point Rose, 2012 Point of Bluff Bi-coastal Red, 2014 Silver thread Blackbird, 2014 Point of Bluff Chardonnay, 2014 Point of the Bluff Dry Riesling. We especially enjoyed the signature Rooftop Red Cabernet Franc Rose as it had a hint of jalapeno in it and we thought it would pair nicely with pork carnitas tacos or sliders.