The following is a guest post written by Abe Schoener, winemaker of The Scholium Project, and one of the founders and winemakers of Red Hook Winery, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York. The text of this post has also been shared with his Scholium Project mailing list.
A Report on Tragedy and Comedy, by Abe Schoener
I am writing you from Red Hook, Brooklyn, on a beautiful warm sunny day. I wish that I could send a hundred photos. There is so much tell you and words are not enough. I am writing from a pier with water on both sides– the south side looks across the Red Hook Channel of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor to Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey; the north side looks across the Buttermilk Channel to Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty. Wild ducks live near the breakwater shore; ferries, tugboats and their charges ply the water constantly. These days, we see a lot of police boats and Coast Guard cutters racing across the water. This is because we are at the center of a zone of water-born devastation.
I work at a winery here on this pier. I helped to found a winery in Red Hook in 2008, and I have spent many wonderful days here, making wine from New York grapes. I have learned so much from and with my friends and colleagues and have treasured both the experience and our accomplishments. It is not enough to say that there is a world of difference between making wine in Brooklyn and in Napa. I will leave it to your imagination. But what you must know is this: we have found some amazing vineyards sites in the warm, fertile soils of Long Island, and we have made some wines as good or better than anything I have made in California. I will save details for another message. When the storm hit New York, Red Hook was like a breakwater. No zones in the storm’s path in NY suffered worse damage from the raging waters. On the morning that the waters receded, my colleagues reported to me that the winery had been destroyed and that all was lost. Within another day, I got a somewhat more studied (and optimistic) report. We had no power, no doors to close, no working equipment. But very few of the wines, fermenting or in barrel, had been been flooded by water or swept away. It was a miracle. We are still not sure how much might have been contaminated indirectly (through the barrels staves, by swirling vapors), but we knew that we had a new task: no matter what the final result, we must work to save everything that we could.
I flew out as soon as I could. Meanwhile, Mark and Christopher and Darren and Ben and 20 volunteers cleared the tumult of barrels and swept away the fruit spilled everywhere onto the floor. On the fourth day, we began working on the wines again, in the dark, using headlamps and flashlights. We tasted everything and made a triage chart. Some wines still needed pumping over; most were at the end of their fermentations and needed to be drained away from the skins and seeds. We began work draining the tanks of red wine by gravity, into large open vessels that we would then bucket out of to fill barrels. Over the next couple of days, we drained the puncheons of white wine by gravity, bucket, and eventually by a tiny generator-powered pump. Yesterday, we finished draining the puncheons of red. Except for one still active Cabernet fermentation, every wine is now safely down to barrel. We don’t know how much wine is spoiled, how much contaminated– but in a certain sense we do not care. We had work to do.
Why am I telling you this? I learned an important lesson, reflecting on my colleagues and friends working tirelessly in the cold, dark stone warehouse that is our winery. Among us for three days was a winemaker from Piemonte who had originally come here to promote his wines to the important New York market. Instead, he showed up one morning at the winery and could not stay away. For three days, he held hoses, swept the floor, filled barrels. He could not stay away and nor could we– even though none of us had any assurance that we could finally save anything. Our work was in a certain sense an end in itself.
Winemaking is an act of devotion: devotion to the wine in front of you, still young and needing your husbandry to reach its best completion; devotion to the grapes, the grapes harvested to make wine at your hands; but most of all: devotion to the vineyards and the people who own and farm them. None of us had any doubt: we had a natural and irrevocable responsibility to make sure that the grapes grown by Ron Gerler and Joe Macari, by the Matabellas and by Sam McCulloch, that the fruit of their vines, harvested at length, after months of tilling, pruning, thinning, mowing– that these did not go to waste. Storm, hurricane, flood, absence of power, a forklift that would never lift again– no excuse, no impediment: we had a responsibility to make the very best wine and make sure that a whole year’s life in the vineyard was not in vain.
Our devotion flows from the fact that the essence of winemaking is not something silly like blending or ordering the right barrels: the essence of winemaking is preservation and transformation. Both of these can take place with the least of our intervention or supervision; this in turn emphasizes that we are not creators but shepherds.
We were in that cold, dark building for four days– Luciano, from Monforte d’Alba, with other responsibilities in an important market; Talia, a writer with deadlines; Allison and Matt with restaurants to run- we were all there for the same reason. No shepherd would abandon a flock on a stormy hillside. Not his flock, not his neighbor’s. When you take on certain tasks, you accept certain charges and responsibilities and they take residence in your bones. It is wonderful to feel that charge, so deep and so viscerally; and wonderful to respond to it.
This is a report on the close of harvest. Normally, I would not report on Brooklyn– it is another venture, not Scholium. But I rushed from California to come here, leaving my noble and precociously wise interns in charge of the Scholium winery. And my mind has been forced to reflect on two places at once, but one truth. The harvest in California has been my best ever, in every respect. The quality of the fruit, the quality of the wines, the youthful interest of the wines (some of them are already fascinating!), the happiness and efficiency of our work– never have I had a year like this. And my friends and colleagues who grow grapes and make wines– all of them are celebrating. This year, there was no suffering in Napa or Sonoma or Lodi or Suisun– only gratitude and elation.
And then a winery in Brooklyn is demolished and a whole year’s harvest threatened. It made me think right away of the two sides of a coin, inseparable. And made me think of the emblem of the Theater: two masks together, Tragedy and Comedy, inseparable. And this in turn made me think of a very important line in Plato’s Symposium, a beautiful dialogue about love, but also about drinking. The story ends with Socrates compelling his two remaining drinking companions (they had drunk the others under their couches) to agree that “it is in the power of one and the same man to know how to write both comedy and tragedy.” This line has always mystified me and spurred me to thinking, but I never felt that I understood it fully, or knew why this question brought the dialogue to a close. I still do not; but I feel somewhat closer, brought closer by my recent experiences in agriculture, in winemaking, in working in a harbor: in other words, by having my hands and my feet, and my heart and my head, in the physical, unbending world of Nature– not in the filmy, pliable world of books. I learn every year how close the wedding-celebration of comedy is to the funeral march of tragedy. Winemaking– like farming– is shepherding, but it is always no more than a breath away from spoilage.
Thank you for reading such a long message. Just let me know when you want to hear less from me.
With very best wishes
Red Hook Winery is offering “Survival Packs” — collections of their wine, still intact, available for sale. To find out more visit their site here: http://redhookwinery.com/
To read more on the history of Red Hook, and the impact of Sandy on the area plus the winery, check out this thoughtful post by Allon Schoener: http://the-reluctant-angeleno.blogspot.com/2012/11/channeling-destruction-wrought-by-super_14.html
To hear more from Abe on the state of things at Red Hook Winery, check out this podcast with Levi Dalton on _I’ll Drink to That_. Episode 42: http://illdrinktothatpod.com/