By 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2017, the Rooftop Reds team could be found picking grapes as the sun began to rise. Come autumn, vineyard harvests are a familiar scene in wine-growing regions from Sardinia to Sonoma. But this was the first to ever take place five stories off the ground.
Devin Shomaker founded Brooklyn’s Rooftop Reds in 2014 while studying viticulture and wine technology at Finger Lakes Community College. As soon as he came up with the idea for a rooftop vineyard—the perfect marriage of his interests in wine and urban agriculture—he knew he had to pursue it. The way Shomaker sees it, getting people interested in sustainability “has to be led by something that people can go and easily access; something that’s in their human patterns already.” In the case of Rooftop Reds, that something is getting together with friends and enjoying the fruit of the vine. “We need more businesses that have this sustainable, environmental emphasis that people are drawn to. And wine is a vehicle for that.”
With a business plan in place, one of the first steps was finding a home for the project. Shomaker and his co-founders got their start on top of an industrial building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where they planted their young vines in three-gallon pots. From their initial homes, the vines were transplanted into six-gallon pots and ultimately into custom planter boxes designed by Shomaker and his co-founder Chris Papalia.
In the early days, the founders were faced with many questions that winemakers never have to consider, such as “How do you get soil up to a roof?” (Answer: You blow it up. “You know the leaf sucker Snuffleupagus? Just in reverse.”). Furthermore, the load-bearing factors of the building played a role in determining how many planters the rooftop could support. This decision, in turn, influenced the spacing between the rows of grapevines, which affects how much shadow each plant receives throughout the day (almost none, in the end). And on top of the day-long sunshine provided by the row spacing, the reflective nature of the rooftop’s white surface accelerates photosynthesis in the vines.
Given these factors, the team had to keep a close eye on their grapes last fall as their inaugural harvest approached. “It’s an interesting project because we start so much earlier than everywhere else and ripen earlier than everywhere else,” explained Papalia. They ended up harvesting two weeks earlier than they had planned. “If we had kept it all on for another week, there would have been nothing left. That’s how much the grapes ripen up.”
Raise Another Glass
At harvest time, and throughout their history, the Rooftop Reds team has had to do without the benefit of any comparable case studies. While the wine industry can be competitive, Shomaker explained that, typically, “if you have a problem, you call your neighbor.” In the case of Rooftop Reds, there are no such neighbors who can relate to the experience of growing grapes on an urban rooftop. “This is the most frustrating thing sometimes,” added Papalia. “There’s no one to talk to about this.” Shomaker described how people “nerd out on nuances” like the differences in terroir between two different spots along the same lake. “We’re in New York City. Our nuance is freakin’ Mars.”
So while they’ll always hold the distinction of being the first rooftop vineyard, Shomaker and Papalia would love to see the the community of rooftop winemakers expand. A larger pool of knowledge and experience would mean more resources for everyone involved. They were happy to learn of two new rooftop vineyards in Montreal and Berlin, and when someone with aspirations of emulating the concept in Osaka reached out, they went so far as to provide him with a private tour of the rooftop.
Interested in becoming a rooftop winemaker yourself? If so, the Rooftop Reds co-founders have a couple pieces of advice for you. First, go to school, make connections, and build a support system. “Things are going to happen that you don’t understand,” explained Shomaker.” You’re going to need “talented, educated support.” And second, be original. “There’s no studies behind this yet. You have to be creative and start from the bottom up,” said Papalia.
If you’re not ready to dive into rooftop winemaking yourself, there are plenty of ways to support the pioneers of the business. Happily, they all come with the built-in benefits of drinking wine and/or hanging out on a spacious rooftop, which will reopen on April 1. While you’ll have to wait until 2019 to sample wines made from rooftop-grown fruit, the team plans to release a full line-up this year using grapes grown in the Finger Lakes region. “2018 will be the first time we see more than three wines from Rooftop Reds,” said Papalia.
This year will also mark another exciting milestone for Rooftop Reds: The concrete jungle will get a little bit greener when they open a second rooftop space in Brooklyn. “If we don’t show people that we can green our cities, how do we get them involved in sustainability and environmental practices?” asked Shomaker. We’ll drink to that.