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Los Angeles River Wine Company at Red Hook Winery – Brooklyn, NY

Deep in a vague suburb of London between Hackney and Islington on a chilly and dark fall evening, the Maestro approached a cozy neighborhood wine bar, Hector's, where an esoteric figure in the wine industry was to give his first philosophical lecture and tasting since the pandemic started. In the small room lined with about twenty enthusiasts, I finally got to meet and chat with this same dude, Abe Schoener, the mastermind behind Scholium Project and the Los Angeles River Wine Company, and have a light discussion afterward about Foucauldian critiques of surveillance as they apply to walled vineyards in biblical times.

Fast forward fiveish months, when I knew I’d be spending some time in the northeast during my spring break––the best-priced flight I found from the east to the west coast, where I was intent to spend my week off, was out of Boston to San Francisco. Excited to explore Boston more extensively than I had in the past, a wrench was thrown in my plans when the inimitable Abe sent an email to his listserv announcing that freshly bottled 2021 wines from his new venture, the Los Angeles River Wine Company, would be poured at a tasting in New York City, an easy flight from Boston.

I got to know Abe's wines from Scholium more than a decade ago at Pago in Salt Lake City, a restaurant with one of the most innovative beverage programs in the mountain west. After buying a case from his library sale back in 2014, I was hooked on Abe's enigmatic, experimental, and deeply thoughtful winemaking style. Moreover, his journey resonates deeply with me personally––an academic, Abe got his PhD in philosophy and taught college for nine years before choosing to swap careers and become a winemaker, a course that eerily mirrors what might be my own pretty darn soon (more on that later!).

Abe’s new project is a product of his relocation to Los Angeles, in the environs of which there were and still are a surprising number of vineyards from the 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, the region just east of LA proper was once the most productive winemaking region in California. Abe and his colleagues spent countless hours finding vineyards in the area to cultivate. Their work in these vineyards, some still productive but others lost to time, reflects Abe’s philosophical approach to wine––thrive on the periphery of winemaking where nobody thought success possible.

The venue, Red Hook Winery, founded by Abe and Christopher Nicolson, who still runs the place, is in the obscure Red Hook neighborhood of south Brooklyn, an old port hub right on the water with a stunning view of lower Manhattan to the north. After disembarking the ferry from Williamsburg, I was struck by how eerily quiet this place was for New York City––mostly industrial buildings and storage yards, a few modest apartment complexes, and just a handful of denizens walking around. Finding my way to the port warehouse the small winery now inhabits took me about ten minutes, and I was surprised and delighted to walk right past Abe and his companions’ car as they arrived so we could chat and they might show me to the tasting room. Once my dear friend Jo arrived, the party was complete, and we settled in to the industrial-chic tasting room for our experience sampling these just-bottled and still-feisty wines from Abe and team.

The most significant so far of LARWCO’s vineyards has been one imbedded deep in the warehouses of the Inland Empire, literally across the street from the Maglite headquarters (hence their nickname for it––"Maglite"). The owner of this vineyard, now in his twilight years, refused to sell to the corporate encroachers around him, so this vineyard sits among fulfillment warehouses and cookie-cutter headquarters of vaguely successful corporations. The first white and the first two reds were the product of this sandy and water-poor desert vineyard––the first was a white blend made primarily of mission, a grape that made its way from Spain to the new world via Peru and Mexico before becoming a widely-planted varietal in Southern California, Rose of Peru, and a hybrid of these grapes. The reds, meanwhile, were grenache-based––the first sang with ripe red fruit and sparkly acidity, and the reserve had much more heft and depth, but to my mind needed more time in the bottle. All three were unique and a bit funky, products of Abe's style of winemaking but also of the challenging desert conditions the grapes endure as they produce fruit.

The Lopez Vineyard is one of the largest and oldest in California. Just fifteen minutes from Maglite in Cucamonga, Lopez was a major site of zinfandel production, with grapes sent back east for at-home winemakers during Prohibition. Palomino, a grape used for fortified wines and brandy in California, also grows on this property, and from that Abe derives the domineering Golden Chasselas wine, with chewy grip and searing acidity. A wine that needs time, but displays remarkable potential.

Munoa Ranch is one of the most fascinating vineyards that Abe's team at LARWCO works. On a Native American reservation just a stone's throw from the edge of the Cucamonga AVA, this vineyard was planted at an unknown time and for unknown reasons, and was left to overgrow for decades. Abe's team has been working tirelessly on restoring the vineyard, and making some wonderful wine in the process. I had one of their 2020 wines from this site at the London tasting, called "Pet Cemetery" because that's exactly what that particular block was used for. The last white of the lineup, made with Munoa fruit, was the most successful of the white wines, made with pale grenache and pink mission. Abe describes it as "barely white, more like a pale, structured rosé."

The last red we tasted was easily my and Jo's favorite wine of the night. The Riverside Red uses fruit from multiple vineyards, mostly grenache from Maglite and zinfandel from Lopez, as well as unidentified red fruit from another of their vineyards, Galleano Home. Cofermented in layers, this wine is dark but silky, berry-driven, and deeply complex. We were allowed to pour ourselves some additional tastes of all the wines at the end, and I exclusively revisited the Riverside Red.

Afterward, we got to taste three wines from Red Hook made with fruit from the North Fork of Long Island, a surprisingly prolific grape-growing area made possible by its microclimate surrounded by climate-moderating Atlantic water. These wines were mostly reserves, some of which were approaching ten years old, so had settled in the bottle quite a bit more than the feisty, freshly-bottled LARWCO wines. With a more restrained style, getting to taste these was a cool juxtaposition, and it was super interesting to hear Christopher talk about the vineyards on the obscure North Fork.

Red Hook is a wildly cool and unusual part of New York City that is worth a visit, especially because the winery welcomes guests for walk-ins! Meanwhile, do yourselves a favor and buy some of Abe's LARWCO bottlings. They are really special and unique!

New York City so briefly––west coast (best coast) next! Stay tuned as we unclog the back(b)log.

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