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Gotham Gigs: Brooklyn Winery's head winemaker prepares for harvest season


When it comes to wine, McCormack likes to keep things unpretentious.

For about two months in the early fall, Conor McCormack is literally "crushing it" seven days a week. It's not just a metaphor; he's head winemaker at Brooklyn Winery in Williamsburg, and this is harvest season.

McCormack and his staff unpack crates of fresh grapes as they arrive by the truckload from vineyards in upstate New York, California and Washington. He expects to receive about 150 tons of grapes this season. This frenzied eight-week period is called "crush."

"Once it comes off the truck, it's go-time," McCormack said, explaining that the delicate fruit travels in chilled containers but, because his warehouse is not climate-controlled, it must be processed immediately—whether a shipment arrives at 6 a.m. or 11 p.m.

The team of three full-timers sorts, de-stems and dumps the grapes into vats for maceration, a softening process that leaches tannins and flavor compounds. McCormack doesn't believe in crushing grapes underfoot.

"I had my [4-year-old] daughter do it once, but she was so cold she was miserable," he said.

Founded in 2010, Brooklyn Winery makes 18 to 20 different wines—reds, whites, rosés and sparkling, priced from $15 to $67 per bottle. It produced about 9,000 cases and had sales of $5.2 million, including from its wine bar, last year.

McCormack didn't set out to become a winemaker. Born in Ireland, he was raised mostly in San Jose, Calif., and by the time he graduated from college, he was playing bass in a rock band. By age 25, he was looking for temp jobs and answered a Craigslist ad for a harvest position in nearby Berkeley, Calif.

"It would be outside in beautiful vineyards, doing stuff I'd never done before, like driving forklifts," he said. "Who wouldn't want to do that?"

By the end of the season, he found himself in charge of the small harvest crew. Over the next two years, he set out to learn as much as he could on the job, took winemaking courses at the University of California, Davis, and worked in Napa Valley.

He got into urban winemaking and was working in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010 when Brooklyn Winery's founders lured him to New York City with the opportunity to be head winemaker of their new venture.

McCormack likes to keep things unpretentious. His goal is for people to approach his wine without being intimidated.

"Wine is very subjective," he said. "If you think it tastes like raspberries and someone else thinks it tastes like bananas, who's wrong and who's right? If you like it, you like it.


Conor McKormack

AGE: 39 BORN: Limerick, Ireland RESIDES: Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn EDUCATION: B.A. in music, San Francisco State University SNIFFING THE COMPETITION: McCormack doesn't drink Brooklyn Winery vintages at home and encourages his employees to follow suit. "It's very important to drink wines that are not your own," he said. "Otherwise, you can get stuck in your own flavors," a condition called "house palate." HIGH MARKS: Brooklyn Winery has won several awards under McCormack's supervision. Its 2014 unoaked chardonnay won double gold and its 2013 cabernet franc won gold at the 2016 New York Wine & Food Classic.

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