A $1,000 bottle of wine grows in Brooklyn on a first-of-its-kind rooftop vine

New York City boasts some of the most expensive food and beverage items in the country, but when the $1,000 bottle of wine Devin Shomaker is vinting is ready, it will be known for more than just the price. The grapes are being grown on a rooftop in Brooklyn, New York, the first attempt ever in the world to create a commercially viable rooftop vineyard.

Shomaker, the founder of Rooftop Reds, knows that Brooklyn is not where most people would expect a new wine-growing region to take shape. But he is betting that understanding the science of wine will lead to success in a nonconventional geography.

"There is a whole mysticism around wine culture, but how many people know what vines need to grow and prosper? Viticulture management comes down to science, and that is what we are proving out on the rooftop," said Shomaker.

Shomaker began studying viticulture in 2012 at Finger Lakes Community College in upstate New York, the largest wine-producing region in New York State. Even though he was surrounded by wine trails, lakes and waterfalls, Shomaker kept thinking of New York City. He wanted to do something that has become common in cities: open an urban winery.

Baby grapes being grown on a rooftop in Brooklyn. The first-ever rooftop vineyard brings the idea of urban agriculture to the wine industry. Rooftop Reds expects 30 cases of the bottles to be ready in 2019.
Rooftop Reds
Baby grapes being grown on a rooftop in Brooklyn. The first-ever rooftop vineyard brings the idea of urban agriculture to the wine industry. Rooftop Reds expects 30 cases of the bottles to be ready in 2019.

Urban wineries typically have the winemaking facility located in the city, but the grapes are sourced from existing wine regions. Within the last decade, Brooklyn has opened several successful wineries, including Red Hook Winery and Brooklyn Winery. But Shomaker envisioned something that went well beyond that business model: a Brooklyn vine making Brooklyn wine.

He began teaching himself about urban agriculture. "I started getting into how people were developing container farms and raised-bed farms on rooftops," he said, and through his research discovered that no one had applied rooftop urban agriculture practices to growing grapes for wine.

Before getting his degree in viticulture, Shomaker had built several businesses, including a swim school in China, and he had also worked for several start-ups in sales and marketing jobs. "All that experience culminated in saying, 'Hey, I'm going to go for this,'" Shomaker said.

He founded Rooftop Reds while still enrolled in wine school. In addition to his full course load at Finger Lakes Community College, Shomaker worked in a grape vine nursery and in a wine cellar. By the time he graduated in 2014, Shomaker had pilot-tested the concept, raised thousands of dollars, secured a temporary lease and been written up in several local newspapers. "This is Entrepreneurial Hustle 101," he said. "That is what you have to do if you're an entrepreneur."

As a student entrepreneur, the first skeptical audience he had to win over were his professors. "They knew I was investing money and time into making the business a reality. They knew I was traveling back and forth to Brooklyn. They knew I was meeting with leaders in urban wineries. They knew I was entering pitch competitions in New York City and applying for grant funding. It became clear that this was not a pipe dream," Shomaker said.

Finding space for his vineyard in New York City was another big challenge. Still a student, he pitched the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 300-acre industrial park that is home to many small manufacturing companies and where he wanted to rent space on a building roof.

"We are the first movers in the rooftop vineyard space, and we are four years ahead of anyone who tries to copycat us." -Devin Shomaker, Rooftop Reds founder

Shomaker, along with his brother Thomas and classmate Chris Papalia, had already conducted a pilot planting 50 grapevines on the roof of Thomas' apartment in Windsor Terrace. The grapes survived a New York winter, and he used that as part of his marketing effort.

"I leveled with the Navy Yard. I told them I didn't have money but I had a plan to raise $15,000 on Kickstarter."

The Navy Yard agreed to lease the land if he met his goal. Shomaker raised $16,820, and in the spring of 2014, he started a nursery vineyard in a temporary space on the roof of a Navy Yard building.

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Once he had the first grapes planted, Shomaker turned his attention back to money. He met with John Rodenhouse, the owner of award-winning Point of the Bluff Vineyards in upstate New York. "I was able to show him what I had put together. He could see the space at the Navy Yard and the grape vines. The fact that this was off the ground made it easy for him to say, 'This looks like it has merit.'"

Rodenhouse invested $500,000 in the business. Once Rooftop Reds received the investment, it was able to move into a larger, permanent 14,800-square-foot rooftop space. The vineyard contains 42 planters, holds 168 grapevines and has sweeping views of New York City. Those views made the setting perfect for a tasting room.

Brooklyn-based Rooftop Reds plans to become the first premium vineyard to grow its own grapes on a roof. While waiting for its first bottles to be ready in 2019, it is generating revenue through a rooftop tasting room that features wine with grapes sourced from other New York State regions.
Rooftop Reds
Brooklyn-based Rooftop Reds plans to become the first premium vineyard to grow its own grapes on a roof. While waiting for its first bottles to be ready in 2019, it is generating revenue through a rooftop tasting room that features wine with grapes sourced from other New York State regions.

Shomaker says the process to turn his grapes into the first bottles of wine for sale takes more than four years. Rooftop Reds will showcase its first in 2019. "I wanted the first-mover advantage. We are the first movers in the rooftop vineyard space, and we are four years ahead of anyone who tries to copycat us," he said.

Because his rooftop vineyard is small compared to most of his peers', Shomaker could not justify the cost of building a production facility in Brooklyn for his harvest. So he plans to take the grapes grown on the Brooklyn rooftop vines to the Point of the Bluff production facilities for aging and bottling. Where wine grapes are grown has a much bigger effect on the wine than where the bottle is produced, he said.

In the meantime, Rooftop Reds is generating revenue through its rooftop tasting room that features wine with grapes sourced from other New York State regions. Three of the wines are from grapes sourced from Point of the Bluff Vineyards.

This past September, Rooftop Reds also launched a wholesale division and in 2018 will be available in select restaurants and retail shops. Shomaker's business also makes money by hosting pop-up dinner parties, wine tours, yoga classes and renting out the rooftop space for private events.

Many New Yorkers have flocked to Rooftop Reds to sip wine overlooking its vineyard, but getting wine enthusiasts to spend $1,000 on a bottle of Brooklyn red will not be easy.

"When you look at a French wine selling for $1,000, there is limited availability, but it also comes from a particular geographic location known for quality wines," said Sam Filler of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. Third-party validation from consumer wine and trade publications will likely be important. "People will look at how many points the wine gets assigned by top wine critics and if it has won any awards. It will have to meet the standard folks are accustomed to with a highly rated wine," Filler said.

Shomaker isn't worried. He is confident wine from his Brooklyn vines will be deserving of a premium cult-level price tag. "This is a collector's item. It will be the first of its kind, and it's extremely limited," he said. Even if spending $1,000 is not for everyone, "it's cool for everyone to come and see," Shomaker said.

By Rene Brinkley, CNBC

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Brooklyn Navy Yard is a 300-acre industrial park.