The 2010 red wine comes from one of the few barrels that were not destroyed or compromised on Oct. 29, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy’s 17-foot surge crashed over Pier 41, where Red Hook Winery is located.
The storm wiped out most of the approximately 100 barrels that were stored behind the tasting room, as well as fermentation tanks holding all of the 2012 fruit that would become that year’s vintage.
“Every tank was full when the storm hit,” says resident winemaker Christopher Nicolson. “As a whole the 2012 vintage was decimated.”
Despite three days of preparation and sandbagging to protect the winery from the storm, water made its way into the building. The morning after the storm brought broken barrels, dumped grapes and submerged equipment.
To add irony to injury, the winery had moved from the corner of Dwight and Van Dyke to the Liberty Warehouse. The storm ravaged both the old and the newly renovated space.
“Construction ran a little late so by the time we moved here it was harvest time. So we decided we’d bottle after harvest,” says owner Mark Snyder as he leans back in one of the leather chairs in the tasting area. He is also owner of Angels’ Share Wines and was a guitar tech for Billy Joel – a rock star past that is reflected in his red, plaid shirt and tousled hair. “We brought in the last grapes on October 27 and then the flood came on October 29, 2012… That didn’t really work out in our favor.”
Like many of its neighbors, the winery did not have proper flood insurance, though it does now. The total cost in damages exceeded $2 million and it took volunteers seven weeks to clear out the debris and organize the space so professionals could make repairs. Six months passed before Red Hook Winery opened its doors – still not in the best condition.
Today, the winery once again echoes the same elegance that stamps all of its bottles. Located in part of a renovated warehouse with the Statue of Liberty in the horizon, its large, glass doors are separated from the water only by a cement walk wide enough for a car to drive on.
Among the sun-splashed wood fixtures and open rafters, a book, Surviving Sandy: The Ultimate Book About Super Storm Sandy, is cradled in a worn basket like an artifact from a shipwreck. Until it was taken down for space recently, a large photo display on the wall depicted storm damage and volunteers.
Also previously on display was a binder created by the winery.“The title of the binder is Why we’re grateful to Hurricane Sandy,” says Snyder. “The book is all emails and notes that we received from people post-Sandy, things that demonstrated the community response. I’m afraid to lose it.”
There are less obvious testaments to the storm: behind the couches and chairs in the lounge area is a white section of wall that resulted from the four to five feet of water that filled the space. It looks like salt had crusted on and was too stubborn to be washed away. The walls leading into the winery are lined with dark brown slates from the barrels that were broken by the storm, creating an effect similar to the side of a woven basket.
“We try to repurpose it – rather than having a negative, we wanted a positive,” says Snyder.
Forty new wines resulted from the first bottling since Sandy. This is remarkable considering that 65 percent of the 2010, 75 percent of the 2011, and 85 to 90 percent of the 2012 vintages were lost as a result of the storm. Fortunately, a warehouse in New Jersey saved all of the bottled wine from being lost.
Irony raised its head again when Snyder and his crew went to sell one of these previously bottled vintages. Its name – given to it by the well-known, somewhat eccentric winemaker Abe Schoener – is “Rebirth from the Sea.” Schoener was initially unhappy with the wine, but as soon as the barrels were moved to the new space near the water the wine was much better in both character and flavor. It was the only wine that was bottled in the new space and then stored with other bottled wines in the warehouse.
“It became poster child to our post-Sandy recovery because the winery had a rebirth from being given to the sea,” says Snyder.
Two wines bottled after the storm that reference it are the aforementioned “Twenty One: Twenty Four” and “League of the Storm.”
“As we ear marked wines that were saved… it was important that we commemorate the situation, but not in a morbid fashion,” says Snyder.
These wines from the recent bottling are very special because of the limited amount that was available following the storm. “League of the Storm,” a 2012 wine, was made without electricity as the winery was without power for five weeks following the storm. Winemakers used buckets and headlamps when making the 2012 vintage, which only yielded 30 magnumsof red wine.
After spending $20,000 to test the sea-tossed barrels of wine for salt water and contaminants, Snyder made the decision to reopen early on.
“Volunteers were instrumental in our recovery,” says Snyder. “There were an average of 40 volunteers every single day that came to this pier. They assisted us with tasks from putting their hands in toilets and clearing the debris out of the toilets, taking apart shelving and things that were destroyed, heavy lifting, organization, cleaning. It was fairly incredible.”
While Red Hook Winery utilized both loans and grants, it refused to take any form of monetary charity.“We didn’t want to take that money from the community, because our losses were so large and our recovery was so long. We didn’t want to deplete the businesses that would benefit from that [money],” says Snyder.
With multi-million dollar losses, Red Hook Winery is “still in the process of ongoing healing and rejuvenation,” and just beginning a fiscal recovery that will be measured in years, rather than months.
Meanwhile, the day-to-day tasks continue on. Nicolson walks around with his crew testing various barrels by swirling the new wine in his mouth before spitting it on the cement floor. Snyder opens up a vat of fermenting grapes and pushes down the fruit that has come to the top. He points out the bubbles of carbon dioxide that have risen up. The crushed grapes give off a smell of fermentation, like bread dough that’s rising, and the juice around the grapes is sweet.
Watching the winemakers at work, it is apparent that winemaking is an art form. And like any artists, there is a certain pride and standard of excellence that must be met at all times.
This pride is one of the main reasons that Red Hook Winery has not taken wine, juice or fruit from any other wineries to supplement the great losses it sustained.
To Snyder and his winemakers, this would have compromised Red Hook’s mission. The winery was founded on a process in which two very different winemakers from California, Robert Foley and Abe Schoener, experiment by making different wines from the same batches of grapes. Foley, Food & Wine magazine’s 2007 Winemaker of the Year, seeks fruity, more traditional flavors. Schoener focuses on more exotic wines that emphasize secondary and tertiary flavors rather than fruitiness.
Just after the storm Snyder received a call from Oskar Bynke of Hermann J. Weimer Vineyard in the Finger Lakes. Though they had never met, Bynke offered juice, machinery and wine to supplement stocks until the winery became fully functional again.
While Snyder declined the offer, he was moved by the generosity and support that the call represented. He called Bynke a year later to thank him. “Just knowing that someone was there and had my back made a huge impact on my ability to keep on keeping on,” says Snyder.
Through such support the winery has been able to continue on its mission of developing a New York terroir, just like the regions of Burgundy and Napa Valley. This focus on experimentation is the reason that Red Hook Winery offers more than 100 different wines.
“[That] is suicide from a branding perspective, it’s a terrible way to make a brand,” Snyder explains with a laugh. “But we’re not creating a brand, we’re creating a focus on the local growing region. It’s important to continue along on that path.”
These days, sales are brisker than ever, with the winery selling most of the 1,000 cases of wine it produces a year. The number of accounts with restaurants and wine shops have risen and Snyder feels that the wine is getting better and better.
“I think we’re doing fantastic. The attention to the winery is ever increasing and in a strange way Sandy was helpful in that. I try to look at the good things,” says Snyder.
When asked what wine he most favors, Snyder references the 2010 wine that was recently bottled, of which Twenty One: Twenty Four is one. “We had to work extremely hard to keep those wines. We’re even more proud that we didn’t bottle them pre-Sandy because the wine wanted to survive, it survived with us. It’s almost like it had an innate sense of recovery and resiliency.”