Monday, October 13, 2008

Harvest Time in Brooklyn



Soon after I met winemaker Abe Schoener last spring and heard he was going to make wine in Red Hook using New York State grapes, I interviewed Steve Mancini, the sommelier at Union Square Cafe. He told me he had been a volunteer worker for Abe the previous summer, helping him put together his California wines. I put two and two together and concluded that Schoener might be open to some volunteerism down in Red Hook. What better way to learn more about wine than to participate in a harvest? And since I don't live in California, what better chance would I have than Abe's Red Hook venture, taking place a mere five-minute bike ride from where I lived?

I dogged Schoener with e-mails and, sure enough, he was happy to accept any volunteers. He put me in touch with Mark Snyder, a partner in Angel's Share Wines, the Red Hook cooperative that is producing the wines and has hired Schoener and Robert Foley as consultants. I was put on the "Harvest List" and sent periodic e-mails whenever grapes arrived at the tiny winemaking plant at the corner of Dwight and Van Dyke Streets.

The first call came on Sept 29. Gew├╝rztraminer from the North Fork of Long Island was on its way! As this news came exactly as Rosh Hashanah was arriving, and I did not think my Jewish wife would appreciate my ducking out to go sort grapes, I had to pass on this invitation. Beside, I was most interested in the Sauvignon Blanc shipment, which was due soon after. I have been impressed with what Abe has done with SB in California and wanted to be on hand for his first NY harvest.

On Oct. 4, another e-mail came. Abe was in town and the four tons of Sauvignon Blanc would arrive in Red Hook at 4 PM Oct. 6, with 9 tons of Chardonnay to follow soon after. All hands on deck!

I biked it down at exactly 4 PM and found no grapes, no people. A waitress at Rocky Sullivan's, which is across the street from the winery, directed me: "They're in there." Abe, Mark and some associates, including one Johanna, who works with Abe in California, and looks something like Ingrid Bergman, were sitting inside enjoying pizza and beer. Schoener was, as always, an unmistakable presence in his buzz-cut, large glasses and bright red shirt. The grapes were late, sitting in truck stuck in think, Long Island Expressway Sunday night traffic.

I was surprised by the small size of the winery. There were a few dozen barrels, four modest steel tanks, a small stemming machine, a press and a couple plastic tables which, when put together, were to be the sorting station. A very nice man named Chris seemed to be in charge of the volunteers.



The grapes arrived after 6 PM. The back door of a medium-sized white truck opened. There were dozens of small yellow pallets of small, green-gold grapes. Four tons didn't look like that much, but, as I soon found out, they made for a huge amount of fruit to go through. There were about a dozen volunteers by now, in addition to the Schoener and Angel's Share people. Suddenly, it was All Business. Grapes were dumped on the sorting table. Abe gave a short and sharp lecture about how to sort the grapes. Brown ones were infected with Botrytis and should be discarded. Blackish ones has some sort of mildew and also have to be sorted. If a cluster had too many of these, don't mess around: just toss the whole bunch. If a cluster had just a couple bad grapes, it was a keeper. The basic gist was: Be careful, but don't get bogged down in details.



We lined up on either side of the table and began sorting like demons. White plastic buckets by our feet were for throwaway grapes. Big gray buckets at the end were for kept grapes. When the gray buckets were filled, they were dumped into the destemmer. When the large white pallets under the destemmer got full they were pulled to settle elsewhere, and a new pallet was put in its place. It was a teeny-tiny assembly line.

Chris was an expert sorter. He astounded me with his speed and split-second decisions. When he wasn't sure about a cluster's quality, he took a big animal bit of it. If it tasted good, he through it in the gray bucket. He loudly, but kindly, prodded us to keep the grapes moving down the table and not to let the grapes accumulate too thickly at any part of the table.




Very quickly, I developed a hearty respect for vineyard laborers. My back ached. My neck ached. This was hard work. But I kept on, hour after hour (the grapes never stopped coming). At some point, a second wind kicked in and I forgot about my weariness. A couple times, I got to dump the grapes into the destemmer. That was fun. Abe directed me to stick my nose in the palette of destemmed grapes. "You smell that clean smell?" I did. "That tells you those are good grapes. We're sorting well."

The group was an interesting one. One guy said he worked at Craftbar. I recognized one of the staff members at Crush, the Manhattan wine store. Later, LeNell Smothers of LeNell's wine and liquor store showed up. The owner of The Good Fork restaurant dropped by with his family and promised to cook the group a dinner in a couple nights when the harvest was done.



I tried to learn what I could from Abe. I asked him about the difference between California and New York Sauvignon Blanc grapes, which he said was "night and day." The New York clusters were not as tight and the grapes smaller and less ripe. He would have to alter his vinifying accordingly. Most of the wine would not be exposed to the skins for long. The juice would then be aged in the stainless steel tanks. He had instructed the sorters to pick out what they deemed the most "beautiful" clusters and set them aside. These would become skin-fermented SB. (I kept a special eye out for these, and carefully watched a pallet where they were gathered, afraid it would be mistakenly dumped in with the rest of the grapes.) The next day he said he expected to get 40 cases out of the Sauvignon Blanc. Schoener had originally hoped to make wine with Tocai Friuliano grapes, but Millbrook, the Hudson Valley winery that grows that rare (in the U.S., anyway) varietal, would not make a deal to sell any grapes.

I spoke to one of Snyder's partner (whose name I've forgotten), who informed me that all the wine made there would go out under the Angel's Share label—something I did not realize. Schoener's and Foley's names will be on the label as winemakers, but the bottles will not technically be Schoener or Foley wines. (Foley will be working mainly with red grapes: Merlot and Cabernet Franc.)

There were sandwiches and chips and soda for sustenance. Around 9 PM, I allowed myself to take a break. By 10 PM, I had to clear out; tomorrow was a working day. There were still plenty of grapes to sort. I heard the next day that work continued until 3 AM. I was sad I didn't get to participate in any of the other stages of the winemaking, such as the pressing, and transfer to the tanks.

The next day, I got an e-mail that the Chardonnay would arrive around 4 PM. I had a few spare hours, so I rode down. By 6:30 PM, the grapes were still MIA, so I left without having assisted in that harvest. I was disappointed, but not necessarily heartbroken; I'm not sure I could have stared down nine tons of Chardonnay.

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