Photo credit: Elizabeth Leitzell
Photo credit: Elizabeth Leitzell

Standing in the cellar at City Winery in SoHo, surrounded by 350 oak barrels filled with chardonnays and cabernets in progress or ready to drink, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in the heart of wine country and that, right outside, vineyards stretch to the horizon. Until things start rumbling and shaking.

It may not quite qualify as Manhattan terroir, but the rolling thunder of the A, C and E trains barreling past in the subway tunnel one block to the east is a regular reminder that City Winery is very far from the bucolic vineyards where its grapes are grown, in the Finger Lakes, California, Oregon and South America. Instead, here in the capital of takeout and delivery, the winery comes to you.

In the most urban environment in the country, winemaker David Lecomte blends sauvignon blancs and cabernet francs, zinfandels and syrahs and other varieties, taking the grapes from uncrating to fermenting to aging in a center that feels spacious for Manhattan but is cramped by industry standards. Grapes are actually crushed on a loading dock, for Bacchus’s sake.

“This is a classic winery in an unusual situation—its location,” Lecomte says, in an understatement.

A working winery in Manhattan is surprising enough, although a kosher one flourished on the Lower East Side until 2000. But City Winery is also unique in its DIY approach: Anyone can make wine here, or at least anyone who has $7,000 to $10,000 to spare. Members, as these Randall Grahm wannabes are called, produce their own blends, from deciding on flavor profile right through to choosing the type of cork. In the six to 24 months it takes for juice to become wine, they get to visit their barrels in that atmospheric cellar on a regular basis, whether every other week or every other month, to taste how their creation is progressing.

Anyone without such deep pockets, or deep DIY interest, can also have wines made by Lecomte bottled with their own labels. But there’s a whole other side to this urban winery. It was founded by Michael Dorf, who ran the Knitting Factory for years and wanted an even more eclectic music venue. So City Winery doubles as a concert hall, showcasing acts like Jakob Dylan, Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin, the kind who can fill 1,000-seat halls but are, Lecomte says, happy to play the 350-seat venue. He labels wines to commemorate their performances, and concertgoers can buy them to drink there or take home as a keepsake. City Winery also houses a restaurant open for lunch and dinner, two bars and a private dining room overlooking the cellar. At the side bar, five different wines are pumped straight from the barrels, which means no sulfites are needed for preservation. Judging by the chardonnay I tried at lunch, the flavor is crisp and clean.

The full center turned two on New Year’s Eve but the winery is now on its third spring vintage, using grapes from South America. Lecomte, who can cuss like a New Yorker and charm like any Frenchman, is from Tain l’Hermitage in the northern Rhône Valley and completed his wine degree in Burgundy and an advanced degree in Montpelier, in the Languedoc in the south of France. He was working in California when he met Dorf, who was looking for a way to get people to meet and mingle with music but wanted to take it further, with wine. It’s hard to imagine such a business proposal sounding feasible, but Lecomte was game. “I liked the craziness of the concept,” he says. Unlike most wineries, City owns no vineyards. Instead, Lecomte has developed relationships with well-known growers and contracts for part of the crop: “Basically, we share vineyards.” Grapes are picked late at night or early in the morning in the Napa Valley, say; packed in 30-pound cases, the kind used in the Champagne industry to minimize compaction; and trucked across country to be turned into wine. (Stay mellow, locavores: Some grapes do come from within a day’s drive of Manhattan, from the Finger Lakes.)

“It’s a crazy chain to get the grapes here,” admits Lecomte. “Or it looks crazy, but when it’s done properly, you have pristine grapes. It’s a complex chain.”

The winery has five full-time employees and invites the paying public to help at harvest time. One crop drew 500 people for the crush in late October, to help sort the grapes, though not actually stick their toes in them. All their juice went into huge stainless- steel tanks at Varick Street level; the sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and riesling will be blended and aged in 50 barrels on the same floor, but the cabernet, syrah, pinot noir and zinfandel are destined for the barrels in the cellar.

Aspiring winemakers who commit the months and money start by choosing the color and style, first by tasting nine variations. Some make their selections in a single one-hour session, others over several visits. “People usually have an idea what they want,” Lecomte says, but tasting is believing—they might come in intending to make cabernet sauvignon and opt for syrah instead.

The winery offers a choice of 10 varietals from 13 vineyards. Members also taste previous vintages to discern the potential of aging. Lecomte then guides them through the blending process to bring in the notes and flavors they imagine they want, and he talks them through the option of aging in French oak barrels as opposed to American barrels. They make the decisions, but they also need to get their hands wet.

Members have to commit to an entire barrel, which yields 21 cases, with 12 bottles in each. Over the many months, members come back at least once a month to taste the wine as it ages, from barrels marked with their names. They can design the labels, or take what City Winery prescribes, and choose the corks and the capsules. “It’s pretty custom,” says Stuart Racey, the director of sales.

Eventually, Lecomte says, the City Winery concept will hit the road. “We’re looking at Chicago [for 2012] and can export to other cities, even other countries.” Racey notes the winery is also the wine sponsor of Central Park Summerstage’s May-to- September season, where up to 5,000 people a night attending the concerts can try wine from its trailers.

So far the winery has more than 100 members, including “corporations, a bunch of couples, groups, one person spending a lot of money,” Racey says. Make-your-own cabernet has particular cachet as a milestone marker or birthday commemoration. “One guy turning 50 came in with a ‘life list’ that included beekeeping and making his own wine,” he says. Others want to lay down wine to serve at a wedding or commemorate the birth of a child, who will have quite a collection when he or she reaches drinking age. Or they make wine as a corporate gift. “Thirty-five dollars [a bottle] is not bad for a gift,” Racey dryly observes.

Since Schapiro Wine closed on the Lower East Side in 2000, after 93 years making what it proudly called “wines you can cut with a knife” and sold primarily at Passover, City Winery now also produces certified-kosher wines, with Lecomte supervising the rabbi and approved volunteers who actually lay on hands. Those barrels age in a separate room in the cellar whose door is taped shut with a sign warning: “Don’t break the seal unless you want to buy 15 barrels of wine.”

But as Lecomte repeats, he’ll make anything and everything, drawing the line only at fortified wines. One autumn he produced altar wine for Trinity Church.

The winery is also a frequent host of corporate events, trade shows, wine portfolio showcases and private dinners (such as one involving all wines of Piedmont, in Italy). A basement kitchen supplies the food, which includes flatbreads with dough leavened by lees left from the winemaking. A tasting room is in the planning stages.

Food is served not in booths but at long tables, Racey says, to encourage an easygoing atmosphere with plates for sharing. Besides their own wines on tap, the restaurant/bars offer 300 boutique wines.

Lecomte is already scoping out space down the block for extra storage as the winery expands production, but barrels with members’ nametags on them will remain on the premises. “If we’re a victim of our own success, we can move, but the members’ wine has to be physically close by.”

As he says that, glass flasks on the table in front of us start clanking as another train barrels past. “Doesn’t it feel surreal to be in a wine cellar with that happening?” I ask.

He just grins and says: “I’m getting used to it.”

Regina Schrambling

Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer who left an editing job at the NYT to train at the New York Restaurant School, freelanced for magazines for 15 years, returned to the NYT for 46 months as deputy editor of the Dining section and then happily returned to freelancing. Her cat eats extremely well.

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