“No vineyards, no limits.”
It may sound counterintuitive to start a winery that prides itself on its lack of ties to a particular vineyard, but that’s just what Stewart Epstein and Jeffrey Fiegel have done.
The two winemakers launched Brooklyn West Winery in Madera in 2013, and are set to open a tasting room in Oakland’s Jack London Square late this spring. They’ll be pouring wines made from grapes sourced from across the state of California.
Epstein’s idea of “no limits” applies to various parts of Brooklyn West’s business, but none so vital as its application on the wine itself. He says that by detaching the winery from the vineyard, he is able to make “seriously good wines from a variety of grapes grown in their optimal terroir,” and it allows the customer to “discover amazing wines from all over the state, rather than just being limited to the Cabernet or Chardonnay growing in the backyard of ‘Chateau-du-Faux.'”
It’s a common practice in the urban wineries proliferating in Oakland and Berkeley. Just about every winery in the East Bay partners with at least a few different vineyards. As Urban Legend says on its website: “Being outside ‘wine country’ liberates us to source grapes where a particular variety grows the best — not just what grows in our back yard. We can celebrate the best of California terroir. It also liberates us to do what we do best: find the best fruit, seek great but unusual varieties, and — more than anything — take meticulous care with winemaking to craft the finest in flavor.”
Plus, said Epstein, having a tasting room in an urban setting makes it easier to escape the “pretension” of places like Napa. “We’ll be serving first class wine coupled with a friendly environment that is comfortable, casual and focused on learning,” he said. “The urban setting lets people get a glimpse of the winemaking process without making a big trip or a big deal out of it.”
Brooklyn West’s tasting room will always be staffed with at least one winemaker who can walk from table to table to answer questions from guests, and it will have has its focal point the wine-making equipment itself, inclosed in glass so that guests can always see what’s going on.
On the food side, Brooklyn West will serve a menu of small, wine-friendly dishes like charcuterie plates. “It’ll be a winery in the style of a brew pub,” said Epstein. He intends to source food items from Oakland-based producers, and he will decorate the space with local artwork. “We’re very invested in Oakland … and I want the winery to reflect the community.”
Epstein specializes in Spanish and Portugese wines. He’s been making Tempranillo professionally for 20 years, and also has a passion for port. These two passions have recently converged in one unique wine: His 2009 Sierra Foothills Tempranillo currently for sale was aged in port barrels for 20 months. It was “an experiment to make a unique wine that is neither purely Spanish nor purely Californian; a bridge of sorts between old and new winemaking,” he wrote on the company website. “The end result is a Tempranillo that has a very rich, almost port-like, aromatic intensity, [with] all the big fruit flavors and earthiness of a young Rioja layered upon a smooth and supple mouthfeel.”
Brooklyn West doesn’t produce only Iberian-inspired wines. It also offers wines like a Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, dry Riesling and a 2012 Zinfandel that recently was awarded 90 points from Wine Enthusiast Magazine. The wines are currently available online and through Brooklyn West’s wine club. Once the tasting room is open, wines will be available for purchase there as well.
Epstein’s knowledge of Spanish wines is at the heart of Brooklyn West’s founding. He met Fiegel, his co-winemaker, while pouring Fiegel a glass of his own Tempranillo at a wine bar in Madera. The two chatted about winemaking philosophy for the rest of the evening. When Epstein later got an email from Fiegel wanting to “pick his brain” on Spanish wine over coffee, the scene was set for a lasting partnership. “By the end of the first latte,” Epstein wrote on his website, he “brought him aboard as a winery intern.” After working together for several years, they launched Brooklyn West.
The name is inspired by a multi-level relationship between the winemakers and Brooklyn. Both Epstein and his wife Michelle moved to Oakland from Brooklyn, where Michelle grew up. It is also a reference to Brooklyn, California, which was annexed by the city of Oakland in 1872, and is currently the known as East Oakland. And, in current media coverage, Oakland is often referred to as the “Brooklyn of the West.”
Beyond the nomenclature, Brooklyn West aims to tap into the casual, creative vitality of both Brooklyn, NY and Oakland, said Epstein. And he wants to do it in a fun way. “People can be intimidated by wine,” he said. “But at the end of the day, wine is a beverage. Many [winemakers] make the mistake of not presenting it that way. If people learn about wine, it is easier to enjoy. I want to take away the shadows.”