Inside Look: An Interview with Brooklyn Winery Owner Brian Leventhal
Brooklyn Winery owner Brian Leventhal is yet another resident with a business in Williamsburg, who makes its northern neighbor of Greenpoint his home. Leventhal and John Stires are the innovators behind the beautiful urban winery and event space, which they started after they visited a winery in New Jersey.
Greenpointers chatted with Brian about the challenges of owning a business that depends not only on the harvest and transport of grapes, but also on the whims of Brooklyn drinkers.
GP: Could you tell us a bit about the transition that Brooklyn Winery went through in its early years?
Brian: Brooklyn Winery began as a place where people could come in, work with our winemaker and craft their own barrel of wine. Although great in theory, in execution, this business model had its set of challenges. We learned quickly that we needed to pivot and change the model. We did so about one and a half years in, when we decided that all wine made at Brooklyn Winery would be branded under our own label. In addition, in response to a substantial demand for private events, specifically weddings, we decided to open a full-service, high-end event space. We haven’t looked back since!
GP: What’s your go-to wine at the winery after a long hard day of work?
Brian: It depends on the season. In the winter, I like to cozy up to a glass of our Zinfandel. In the summer, I can’t get enough of our new Dry Rose.
GP: Your dishes aren’t the typical cheese and charcuterie, yet still pair very well with your wines. Who created the menu with wine in mind, and were they a sommelier as well? What’s your favorite food-wine pairing available at the winery?
Brian: Our wine bar dishes were created by Chef Michael Gordon. Michael is not a certified sommelier. However, he worked closely with our Winemaker Conor McCormack to discuss pairing elements and ensuring that all the dishes work well with our wines. My favorite food and wine pairing at the wine bar right now is Dry Rose and Braised Leek and Goat Cheese Tart.
GP: What’s the team like, and how do you all interact together?
Brian: We have an awesome team at Brooklyn Winery. Everybody believes wholeheartedly in the business and gives his or her all. With our business, there needs to be a lot of cooperation between various departments.
For example, many of our larger events make use of the Harvest Room space where we do all of the wet work related to making wine. Whenever there is a larger event, the winery crew has to prepare the space so it can be used for events. This can take several additional hours of work, but the team understands that the event business is a critical portion of what we do and the winery would not be able to exist on its own without it.
We also give everyone the opportunity to learn about wine and winemaking. Whether you work as a sales person in the office or as a cook in the kitchen, you are encouraged to participate in harvest when the grapes arrive. Our winemaking team always finds time to show the other employees what they are doing. This goes a long way.
GP: Your spot defies the conventional ideas of wine bars as staid, quiet spots with a sophisticated and rather boring air. Do you think Brooklyn Winery has done a lot to change the view of a wine bar as fun, and was that your goal?
Brian: We definitely wanted to demystify wine and make it more approachable. Our wine bar was the vehicle in which we can help make this happen. It begins with long, communal “beer hall” style tables as opposed to lots of two-tops.
By having guests sit next to each other, it encourages a livelier, less pretentious environment. The staff we hire not only have a great amount of wine knowledge; they also are extremely personable and friendly. The staff engages with the patrons and helps them learn about wine in a fun way. The wine bar is perfect for a big group and still intimate enough for a first date.
GP: Do you think Americans and New Yorkers, as hard whiskey-drinking folks, are starting to “get” wine in the new world?
Brian: I think New Yorkers are willing to try a lot of different types of beverages. People are opening their minds to a variety of libations, including wine. Industry growth in the wine market is being driven by millennials, not baby boomers, as some might expect. Millennials are more open to trying new and different types of wine.
One fun way to encourage learning through drinking is through our wine flights. We offer several thematic flights where the customer can try several wines in smaller quantities, and doesn’t have to commit to a full glass of something he or she would not normally order.
GP: What’s your favorite?
Brian: One fun flight is the Chardonnay, three ways. We craft Chardonnay in three different styles: unoaked, barrel fermented or aged, and one fermented with full skin contact, creating a wine with an “orange” hue. All of these wines use grapes from the same region of the Finger Lakes, but because of differing winemaking techniques, they smell and taste dramatically different.
GP: Tell us about your connection to the community of North Brooklyn.
Brian: We love being part of the North Brooklyn community. There is such a vibrant bar and restaurant scene here and it has been great watching it grow over the past 6 years. We are part of BABAR (Brooklyn Alliance for Bars And Restaurants), which is an amazing group of North Brooklyn establishments that work together to help each other out. We have an active email list where people can ask each other just about anything, from “Who knows a good plumber, our sink is clogged,” to “Who does everyone use for General Liability Insurance?” We try to support our neighbors as best we can. We always carry a Brooklyn Brewery beer on our beer list and donate wine to local, charitable events.
GP: What are the spots around you you like to go to to grab a quick breakfast, a dive bar drink, or a coffee?
Brian: I don’t eat too much breakfast out but I do love to grab coffee in the morning from Swallow on Driggs and North 9th. Other favorite local spots include Rosamundes, Jimmy’s Diner in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Sweetgreen, and Vinnie’s Pizza, both in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
GP: Tell us about working with your winemaker Conor and how you found him.
Brian: Working with Conor has been an amazing experience. I could not ask for a better partner, employee and friend. Not only is Conor extremely talented when it comes to making wine, he also has a great strategic vision and we work closely with him on the direction of the company. We found Conor on winejobs.com. Conor was the perfect fit. He ran production for a large urban winery in San Francisco and coming to Brooklyn was an easy transition for him.
GP: What do you love about the process of making wine?
Brian: What I love is that wine is essentially one ingredient: grapes. The fact that we can start with just grapes and then after one to two years can end up with something that tastes so great, always fascinates me. At Brooklyn Winery, we let the grapes speak for themselves and just guide them along the process. Wine is a living thing. It is constantly changing and there is always more to learn. It will never get boring or old.
GP: When you travel to Napa, what do you learn about the grapes you’re shipping in and the terroir?
Brian: We bring in fruit from regions such as Sonoma, Suison Valley and Lodi — a much better value than Napa! When choosing our vineyards, it all starts with the land and farming practices employed. Conor grew up learning about vineyard management and grape growing. He can recognize a great vineyard from a so-so vineyard. We are proud to have such amazing vineyard partners in both the west coast as well as New York State. You can have the best winemaker in the world, but you still need great grapes to make a great wine.
GP: What’s your holy grail of wines to make? What would you want it to be, look like and taste like?
Brian: All I can ask for is to make the best possible wine from the best possible grapes! The beauty of being an urban winery is our ability to source grapes from a variety of different vineyards throughout the country. This allows us to make Riesling from the Finger Lakes in New York, a cool climate region as well as Zinfandel from Lodi, California, an extremely hot region. A typical winery that grows its own grapes would never be afforded this luxury.
GP: What’s your favorite event you’ve held, and what do you hope to do in the future?
Brian: It’s impossible to pick one favorite event, but I’d pick all of our weddings. To be able to host one of the most important days of a couple’s life and provide them a lifetime of memories makes all the hard work worthwhile. When we receive thank you notes and glowing reviews after the wedding, I still get quite emotional.
I learned that it’s important to take a step back sometimes and remember that all of the blood, sweat and tears that I’ve shed in starting and growing Brooklyn Winery are truly worth it.
As for future events, I am looking forward to the most, I would be lying if I didn’t mention my own wedding to be held at Brooklyn Winery in September of this year.
Congratulations to Brian — be sure to say hello to him if you stop in at Brooklyn Winery for the new rosé or spot him grabbing a slice at Vinnie’s.