City Winery, appropriately named, is very urban. Located on Varick Street in Soho, just above the entrance to the Holland tunnel, it’s hard to imagine a more urban setting for a winery. Entering the space, depending on the day and what is happening there, doesn’t necessarily remove you from the urban aspects (yet). The place is huge – 21,000 square feet altogether – and on the ground floor there are two wine bars, a cheese bar, a restaurant, and a performance space. There is a surprising amount of activity during the day as well as the evenings. And, as Eric Asimov noted in The Pour, it is “a very cool space”.
The star of the stage, at least for the oenophiles amongst us, is the winery itself. This is a bona fide, fully functional winery, with fermentation tanks, hoses, sorting tables, basically all the kit and accoutrements necessary. There is even a small lab (complete with espresso machine). It is when you step into the winery that you feel like you have left New York behind. The knowledge that Varick Street is right outside only adds to the magic. Downstairs the barrels, now full of wine, lie with their contents maturing.
The founder, Michael Dorf, is a music promoter, and it is obviously something he does very well – witness the Knitting Factory, which he started, the amazing tributes that he has put on at Carnegie Hall and other places, and now the performers that he has beckoned to City Winery. He has managed to combine two of his passions into one venture; Michael is nothing if not innovative and a true entrepreneur.
I have a great deal of respect for Michael – first of all for the brilliance of the idea, and secondly for executing it. Not many people would have taken on the challenge. When he first told me about the concept, my initial reaction was two-fold: (1) fantastic and (2) that the grapes would be damaged on their long ride from California or Oregon or even upstate New York. Working with experts across various sectors within the industry, they have worked out a system though that does treat the grapes gently – involving scheduling picking at night when it is cooler, cooling the grapes immediately, and then keeping them cool and packed in small containers for their journey. Grapes have been moved from growers to negociants for centuries, and transported long distances across Australia, where they do not have wineries set up in every vineyard.
It was when we saw the winery that we became really convinced and thought “we have to do this!”. The magic, the alchemy, the excitement that goes on in a real live winery is contagious. And inspiring – what other chemical process results in such a profound and different product each time?
As barrel owners, one of the first decisions you get to make is what kind of varietal you want, and which vineyard you want the grapes to come from. We chose Syrah for our varietal; specifically, Syrah from Madder Lake Vineyard in Lake County, with an AVA [American Viticulture Area] of Clearlake. Mollie Battenhouse, our wine director, was familiar with this vineyard so we know what it is capable of. We also chose used French oak for our barrel – we wanted something a bit toned down and weren’t at all sure our wine would have the power to stand up to new oak.
David Lecomte is the winemaker at City Winery. He grew up in the Rhone Valley (one of Syrah’s favorite homes), and has a degree in Viticulture and Winemaking from the University of Davaye in Burgundy and a Master Degree of Enology and Winemaking from the University of Montpellier.
David has an interesting challenge: to provide guidance and educate his clients, to let them make as many decisions as possible, but at the same time to turn out very good wine. Because while the experience of making your own wine is great, if it isn’t very good, that novelty will quickly wear off. David Lecomte seems to handle this challenge admirably. Luckily for all the barrel owners, he is not content to sit back and let people completely dictate what they want done with their wine. If he believes that a decision will negatively impact the wine, he will not do it. So while being an active participant and helping to make decisions is part of the experience, David is really the one in charge and takes responsibility for the quality of the wine (which I for one completely appreciate).
On a recent barrel tasting, on a Friday morning in New York (and spitting – it was not yet 10:00 AM), we tasted from our own barrel, along with several house barrels. David noted that Syrah in the U.S. can be “stinky”. He seems happy with his Syrah barrels though, including ours, which had peppery aromas and a bit of musty earth. No stinkiness. David relies on his nose a lot of course. He also “listens” to the barrels – he actually sticks his ear on top of the “bung hole” (the hole in the top of the barrel that gets plugged with either a glass, wood, or plastic ‘bung’).
One very important part of the process that we will get to participate in fully is blending. David is recommending blending, potentially with another Syrah vineyard, or possibly even another barrel from the same vineyard. The importance of blending has been realized throughout the history of winemaking. In regions such as Bordeaux, blending is done from different grape varieties to mitigate the risk of one variety not doing well in any given vintage. Because Bordeaux’s climate is so variable, and somewhat marginal, if in one year the Cabernet Sauvignon does not do well, it may be that the Merlot actually has a good year. The ability to use these different varieties gives the winemakers more flexibility and ability to make a good (or great) wine in more years. In regions such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, blending is done with up to 13 different varieties, both red and white. Grenache and Syrah along with Mourvedre are predominant, but other lesser-known varieties such as Cinsaut, and white varieties including Grenache Blanc and Roussanne are also used. Here it is partly done for complexity – the different grapes contribute different qualities such as acidity, firmness of structure, perfume, complexity in the flavors. Even in the northern Rhone, where Syrah is almost exclusively used, most communes (with the exception of Cornas) are permitted to use up to 15% Viognier, a white grape. In practice it is not usually more than 5% but nonetheless, the art of blending is still practiced.
Part of the appeal and synergy for us (Maslow 6) to own a barrel is the community aspect – part of the fun and enjoyment of wine is sharing it with others and City Winery provides a new spin on that. Being able to pop open a few (dozen?) of our bottles, complete with our own label sounds like a great reason to have a party.
Another synergistic aspect is the education. As mentioned, David is committed to guiding his clients about the winemaking. He is also doing a set of classes to cement that. One of the principles on which Maslow 6 was founded is the importance of education – it can/should be fun and social, and contribute to one’s enjoyment of wine. City Winery certainly satisfies those criteria: learning about winemaking no doubt adds to the experience. And really that is what this is all about: the experience.
As were were tasting from our barrel one thing we all noticed was the rumble of the subway. The holders that are used for the barrels at City Winery have been custom built, partially to reduce the vibrations caused by the subway. Perhaps though, they will lend a little urban terroir – we shall see in about 8 months time!