10 Interesting Facts about Winemaking at City Winery


City Winery and its team are quite diverse, partially due to the winery’s situation in downtown New York City, but also based on the winery’s multi-purpose use as a winery, entertainment venue, restaurant and tasting room.

Each week, we update you on the latest goings on at the winery. But we thought it’d be nice to take a glance back at some of the unique traits of our winery with a few fun facts about us. We hope you find these facts about our winemaking as interesting as we do!

1. When lees (that is, deposits of dead or residual yeast and other particles that precipitate to the bottom of a tank of wine after fermentation and aging) is removed from a wine at City Winery, we recycle it to the kitchen, where white lees is used to make pizza dough and red lees is used to make pretzels. Really dark lees can also be used to paint barrels.

2. City Winery’s Assistant Winemaker Bill Anton was a horse jockey for 20 years before joining the wine world!

3. We don’t “crush” grapes at City Winery. Instead, we simply destem and sort grapes before they are placed in tanks. This helps us maintain the integrity of the fruit as much as we can in order to optimize fresh aromas in the wine.

4. Press wine makes up about 25% of City Winery’s red wine production.

5. City Winery produces a number of kosher wines each year. The kosher winemaking process is overseen by the winery’s Kosher Assistant Winemaker Yanky Drew.

6. The Winery’s Barrel Room uses a house wine tap system to funnel up wines from the winery’s wine cellar. The system employs 11 taps and enables the winery to serve fresh wines on site.

7. At City Winery, we top barrels every 2-3 weeks to prevent oxidation. During the topping, we use the same variety of the wine being topped.

8. The City Winery team bottles and labels all wines on site. In fact, our in-house designer creates all of the wine labels used on our house and barrel member wines.

9. One barrel of wine fills 21 cases — that’s 252 bottles of delicious wine!

10. Because City Winery is located in Manhattan, it cannot be situated on a vineyard. Instead of growing our own grapes, we source grapes from some of the finest vineyards in California, New York, Chile and Argentina.

What else would you like to know about City Winery? Let us know in the comments below.

How to Press Red Wine Grapes

Winemaker David Lecomte explains City Winery’s ventilation and lighting accessories used during the press as two teammates shovel out about 2 tons of pomace from a tank.
The City Winery team has been busy pressing wines for the past week or so.

Pressing occurs after primary fermentation, when a winemaker determines if the young wine has reached its full potential and is ready to be pressed.

In short, pressing takes place once a wine is dry — that is, the free run wine has no more sugars to be fermented.

There are two types of wines that are produced during this stage of winemaking:

  • Free run wine is the wine that runs freely from a tank once the valve is opened.
  • Press wine is the wine that is squeezed from the solids placed in a press. At City Winery, we press two rounds of wine: light press and hard press.

Take a look at the video above and the pictures below for a tutorial on how to press red wine grapes and let us know if you have questions in the comments below!

Lecomte bleeds the tank, removing all of the final liquid, which is known as free run wine.
The first step of pressing wine is bleeding the tank of all final liquid, also known as the free run wine.

Free run wine is generally the highest quality wine, as it is the most aromatically elegant and has the cleanest mouthfeel, as it does not have the cloudiness brought about by lees in press wine.

Lecomte opens the tank after the bleed.
After all of the free run wine is bled out, the tank is opened and all of the wet pomace — the grape skin, seeds and stems left in the tank — is removed.

If a good bleed is administered, a block of wet pomace will flow out when the tank is opened. If not, a fountain of juices will flow out — this could result in the loss of wine, as it could spew everywhere.

Lecomte and wine aficionado Henry Gonzalez shovel out the pomace.
Once the tank is opened, it is necessary for someone to enter the tank and shovel out the pomace. That person enters through the bottom of the tank, instead of the top of the tank, so that it is certain that he or she can get out of the tank again. As a result, a hole needs to be dug in the pomace so that he or she can enter.

At City Winery, we have a modest ventilation and lighting system set up so that the person inside can see and is able to breathe, given the large amount of carbon dioxide within the tank.

Assistant Winemaker Bill Anton carries the basket press to the crushpad using a forklift.
Once the pomace is shoveled into the basket press, it it transported with a forklift to the crushpad, where the press will take place.

Lecomte operates the press.
There are four types of wine presses — City Winery uses a basket press to press its red wines. Wikipedia explains the basket press quite eloquently:

“A basket press consists of a large basket that is filled with the [fermented] grapes. Pressure is applied through a plate that is forced down onto the fruit. The mechanism to lower the plate is often either a screw or a hydraulic device. The juice flows through openings in the basket. The basket style press was the first type of mechanized press to be developed, and its basic design has not changed in nearly 1000 years.”

A hydraulic piston applies pressure to the fruit, pressing out juices.
City Winery sets its press for two pressure points during the press: a light press and a hard press.

The light press and hard press wines, as well as the free run wines, are all kept separate, because they generally have very different taste profiles.

The light press, or “first press” wine, flows outside the press.
Free run wine is fruity and aromatic, and as you press deeper into the fruit, the resulting press wines have increased tannins and mouthfeel.

Press wines are generally put back into the tank to ferment, because they contain residual sugars that need to be fermented. Typically press wines 1 to 0 Brix (the U.S. unit for Specific Gravity) — wines are “dry” (no sugar) at -1 to -2 Brix. This final fermentation process takes a few days to complete. The winery team closely watches the end of the fermentation stage and can warm up the tank to help the existing yeast finish the fermentation.

When both the free run and press wines are dry (without sugars), they are tasted separately, and the winemaker decides if he’d like to keep the three varied wines separate or blend them.

When free run wine is well-balanced, the winemaker keeps it separate. If the tannins are too tight or the wine has a light mid-palate, though, the press wine is usually blended in.

The decision on whether to blend or not is “based uniquely on the taste of the wine,” says Winemaker David Lecomte. He noted that from a practical point of view, it would make sense to blend all of the wines together, so that his team wouldn’t have to track the wines in separate lots.

However, the focus is on making the best wines possible, so blending is based on taste, not logistics. In a case where the team is unsure of whether there is an interest in blending back the press wines with the free run, they run a blind tasting, as not to be influenced by the practicalities of running a winery.

The likelihood of blending often depends on the varietal, Lecomte noted. With Cabernet Sauvignon, he often ends up blending the light press back, because a light mouthfeel can be problematic, as he’s going for a dark fruit and jam feel.

With Pinot Noir, the emphasis is on aromatic freshness and elegance, though, and the varietal can show beautifully without a long finish or mouthfeel — as a result, the press wine is usually not blended back in.

Cellar Hand Sikou Nikate and wine aficionado Lane remove the dry pomace from the press.
When all of the pressing is finished, the dry pomace remaining is the press is removed and disposed of.

And voila, you’re closer to a finished wine product!

Images courtesy of Hank Smeal, cellar intern

Meet City Winery’s Winemaking Team

The diversity of the City Winery winemaking team reflects the diversity of New York City, where the winery is situated. Our head winemaker has been in the industry since he was 16 years old, while the assistant winemaker fell into the wine world after retiring from his 20-year career as a jockey.

To make things even more interesting, the winery’s cellar hand doesn’t drink wine (or any alcohol for that matter) and grew up in Mali and France. And finally, the kosher assistant winemaker jumped into the wine world as a home winemaker, out of a love for the drink.

So, just who are these unique individuals behind City Winery? I spoke with each of the core team members to learn just how they found themselves in the wine industry. Here are their stories.

Head Winemaker David Lecomte took on his first job in the wine industry as a teenager. David grew up in Tain-l’Hermitage, France, a town in the northern Rhône valley. His hometown economy was supported largely by wine production, followed by fruit farming. David said that a wine job, as a result, was just a common job in his area.

So, at 16 years old, David took on a summer job in the vineyards of Delas & Fils Sons, and after two years, he worked his way up to a winery position. Since then, he’s worked with Dragon Seal, Jean Luc Colombo, Chapoutier & Fils, Afton Mountain Vineyards, Premium Wine Group and Herzog Wine Cellars; and in 2008, he joined as the founding winemaker at City Winery.

David’s favorite part of working as a winemaker is when he has a huge diversity of crop coming into the winery. Having a diversity of metrics helps keep him on his toes, as he’s constantly thinking of how to work with each individual wine.

The biggest challenge of winemaking in an urban environment, though, is utilizing a small space to its fullest without compromising the winemaking. Even more problematic is the fact that it is impossible for the winery to be located near the vineyards, as it’s in the heart of New York City. For a classical winemaker, it’s a big challenge, but David says he has grown accustomed over the years, especially since he is “surrounded by great people” who manage the vineyard relationships in Oregon and California, where he is unable to see the grape vines and make on-the-fly decisions.

For the majority of his career life, Assistant Winemaker Bill Anton was a horse jockey, focusing on racing on the east coast of the United States. His love of wine began in his early 20’s, when he happened to compete on the west coast for a few years. A couple of owners, trainers and associates of his were interested in the wine world, and they all toured around Napa wineries together. It was there when he first began to take an interest in the winemaking process.

Furthermore, Bill has always enjoyed cooking, and his general interest in wine has always been intertwined with his passion for cooking. In fact, Bill believes that “A meal without wine is like a meal with a missing ingredient.” He enjoys every dinner with wine, “even if it’s a pizza,” he says.

Once Bill retired from his career as an athlete, he attended the Florida Culinary Institute to pursue his passion for cooking. At the end of the program, he took a course on food and wine pairing, reigniting his interest in wine.

From there, Bill happened upon an ad in a Long Island newspaper, posted by a winery searching for harvest help. He was employed with that winery, Castello di Borghese, for two harvest seasons. Afterwards, he accompanied the winemaker from Pindar Vineyards (in Long Island) to be his assistant winemaker at Childress Vineyards in North Carolina.

Bill heard about the opening of City Winery and began contacting the winery before it opened. He was fascinated with the idea of urban winemaking. At the time, the winery didn’t have an opening, but during the harvest of 2009, it brought Bill on as the assistant winemaker.

Bill’s favorite part of winemaking is that “every year brings a different challenge. Two years are never the same.” Furthermore, he loves to see the end product after the process of seeing it go from a juice to a high quality wine. On the flip side of the coin, Bill agrees with David that the most difficult aspect of urban winemaking is dealing with space constraints. When you’re restricted to a small space, the winemaking process becomes much more complicated, he says.

Kosher Assistant Winemaker Yanky Drew says his passion for wine goes a long way back, especially since wine is used quite often in Judaism.

“As a kid, I always tried to turn table grapes into wine,” he says. “As you can guess, I was not too successful. But when somebody was making wine, I was there to help. My real turning point was at Yarden Winery in the Golan Heights in Israel. I tasted their Gewürztraminer in the tasting room and was instantly hooked with the barrel rooms, vineyards and so on.”

Yanky’s passion for wine drove him to be a home winemaker, tweeting and reading tweets about winemaking. And it was through Twitter that he came to know of City Winery. “I met the previous City Winery Mashgiach, Ilan Tokayer, may his memory be blessed, through our shared tweeting. He then told me about the vacancy [at City Winery].”

For Yanky, winemaking is all about the love of the process. “What I enjoy the most about the wine world is people who have a real passion for winemaking and produce great wine for all to enjoy,” he says. “I also appreciate when wine tastes like the variety that it is, in other words, true to its variety. What I like the least about the wine world is producing and selling wine just for the business aspect of it — and people who don’t care to make good wine, only to make money.”

Cellar Hand Sikou Nikate was born in Mali, Africa and spent half of his life there before moving to France, where many of his family members live.

While Sikou doesn’t drink alcohol, including wine, he enjoys the winemaking process and working with wine.

Prior to working at City Winery, Sikou worked at a Japanese restaurant in France. He heard about the position at City Winery through a friend that works at the winery. While he didn’t have a specialization in wine before applying, the winery was a great fit for him, he says. He enjoys the people and the work.

Sikou began working as the cellar hand at City Winery during the harvest season of 2009.

The City Winery winemaking team works hard every day to make sure the winery is producing top-notch wines. With diverse backgrounds, each of the team members adds his own unique flair to the process.

Let us know if you have any questions about the crew in the comments below!

An Intro to Maceration Management: Pump Overs & Punch Downs

Assistant Winemaker Bill Anton punches down the cap with a punch down tool.
“Maceration management is the most complex and critical stage of red winemaking,” City Winery winemaker explains. He continues:

“The best way to manage maceration is to adapt yourself every day for every tank and to see each tank as its own person or batch. Every day, every tank is behaving differently. Not coming in for one day would cause me to lose sight of what’s going on.”

Maceration is the process through which the solid part of the must — including the grape skin, seeds and pulp — comes in contact with the liquid content — the grape juice and young wine — to impart the desired color and amounts of tannins and aromas to the juice.

During this stage of winemaking, it is important to facilitate the right amount of solid and liquid contact, so that maceration is optimized.

There’s only one pesky thing that gets in the way: carbon dioxide. As sugars in the juice are converted to alcohol during fermentation, carbon dioxide is created as a byproduct. The gas rises to the top of the vessel, pushing the solid materials — including grapes, seeds and pulp — to the top of the container, creating a solid block of fruit, known as the cap (as pictured above).

Right: Assistant Winemaker Bill Anton uses his full body force to punch down.
Left: Carbon dioxide escapes through the cap as Winemaker David Lecomte punches down.
The cap has a tendency to dry out if it’s not redistributed into the juice, causing maceration to slow to a halt.

Lecomte says that one tank produces 20-22 times its volume in carbon dioxide during fermentation. At City Winery, we use a carbon dioxide extractor, which constantly pulls CO2 out of the tanks and into the winery. To keep the winery ventilated, we keep the dock door open when the extractor is on.

The wines are constantly changing during this period. With such rapid change in the wine, maceration management takes over during this time of year, pacing the staff’s work flow, as pumping over and punching down needs are high.

3 Ways to Manage Maceration

There are three methods for maceration management: punching down, pumping over and rack & return. Lecomte explained each method thoroughly — here’s an overview:

1. Punching Down: The first way to integrate the cap back into the juice is punching down, a method very common in the Burgundy and Rhône wine regions of France. Punching down is when the cap is manually or mechanically pushed back into the juice from the top. Feet, a punch down tool or a hydraulic piston can be used to punch down. At City Winery, we use a punch down tool (as pictured above).

Punching down can only be completed when an open-top tank is being used. The team places a wooden beam across the lip of the tank and gets to work with the punch down tool, using the beam to step on for balance.

During the beginning phase of maceration, so much carbon dioxide is produced that the cap is strong enough to walk on. We wouldn’t recommend trying that, though, because one slip into the juice could be fatal. Death is highly likely if a person falls into a fermenting tank of wine, because the carbon dioxide is so strong that it is impossible to breath, even in the case that you get your head above the cap quickly.

Assistant Winemaker Bill Anton pumps over wine.
2. Pumping Over: Pumping over is when liquid from the bottom of the tank is transferred to the top of the tank to submerge the cap. Generally, this is done through two methods. In the first method, a hose is connected to a spout at the bottom of the tank and pushes wine through a pump and into a second hose that sprays the wine onto the cap (as pictured above).

In the other method of pumping over, the wine is emptied through the bottom spout into a tub, so that it can aerate. As the tank is emptied, a hose connecting to a pump siphons the juice through to a second hose that sprays it onto the cap. In both instances, the same tools are used, but the only differing step is aeration.

If a wine has slightly reduced, the team will first aerate it before pumping over.
When a wine has reduced — which is detected by the smell of sulfur, rotten eggs, onion or boiled cauliflower, depending on the level of reduction — it needs air. In this case, the team will use the air method (as pictured above) when pumping over.

3. Rack & Return: The last type of maceration management is called “rack & return” and it’s a new method that’s starting to appear in the Bordeaux wine region of France. This method is uncommon, though, as it requires the availability of two tanks. Racking is the process of carefully moving wine from one place to another. In this case, half of the wine in a tank is moved to another tank and then returned to the original tank at a high velocity using a pump at full speed, causing the cap to break up.

With pumping over, wine can only be pumped as fast as it is flowing out of the tank — that way, it’s replacing the tank at the same rate. For example, today we’re using a pump at 40% its capacity — it can pump up to 120-gallon per minute. This is all based on the flow of the wine from the tank.

With the rack & return method, though, all of the juice in the second tank can be pumped at full speed into the original tank, overwhelming and breaking up the cap. This method enables a winemaker to extract the most character from the solids in the must and can be employed when pumping over isn’t enough. This method, though, would very rarely be used at the end of fermentation, because too much extraction would occur, pushing the wine into a bitter, aggressive state.

Variables to Consider in Maceration Management

Maceration takes about 2-3 weeks, and it’s a balance — the winemaker wants to extract as much potential from the solid materials in the wine as possible. If he extracts for too long, though, the wine can become bitter, harsh or too aggressive, because it begins to extract tannins from the seed, and not just the skin.

If he extracts for too little time, though, the wine may not be as complex as it could be, generally producing a more fruit-forward, than complex, wine.

In general, pumping over and punching down occurs once or twice per day, but can take place as much as 3-4 times per day at the peak of fermentation.

So, how does a winemaker know when he should pump over or punch down? Or whether he should use air to oxygenate the wine during the pump over process? Lecomte says there are a number of variables, of which these are just a few for starters:

  • Whether or not the juice has started fermenting
  • What the pH level is
  • What the Brix reading is
  • Whether the wine will have difficulty finishing the fermentation process
  • Whether another shipment of grapes is to arrive and needs to be placed in the tank
  • What the winery’s pump capacity is
  • What the winery’s cooling capacity is
  • Whether the tank is an open or closed-top tank
  • What the temperature of the juice is
  • How many Brix have been lost within 24 hours
  • What other wines in the winery are higher priority and must be tended to first
  • How much time and how many staffers the winery has available

Lecomte explained that while two wines can have the same Brix reading, for example, they may be behaving completely differently, so the day-to-day maceration management of each will be different. All of the variables listed above — and more — must be taken into account when dealing with each tank.

Maceration is a complicated process, and this post is merely an introduction to how the City Winery manages this phase of winemaking. Let us know if you have any particular questions in the comments below!

Destemming & Sorting Grapes at City Winery

The City Winery harvest team sorts and destems Pinot Noir grapes.
The City Winery team has been busy receiving tons (literally) of grapes for the harvest season — in the past two weeks, we’ve received 21 tons of grapes to sort and destem!

Now is the perfect time to explain exactly what happens during the “crush,” as it is commonly called. I spoke with City Winery Winemaker David Lecomte to get all the details.

First off, the term “crush” is misleading, David explains — at City Winery, we don’t crush our grapes, so that we can maintain the integrity of the fruit as much as we can in order to optimize fresh aromas in the wine. Instead, we simply destem and sort grapes before they are placed in tanks.

Look at these beauts we received last week! Pinot Noir at its finest.
The majority of the wine industry crushes grapes when they are received. The only constraint that makes crushing necessary is the need for must — freshly pressed grape juice that contains the skins, seeds and stems of the fruit — to be transported through hoses from the crushpad — where the crushing takes place, usually outside the winery — to tanks. In order to push the grapes through the hose without clogging, there needs to be a fair amount of liquid.

Some wineries build their crushpads at higher elevations than where the tanks are located in order to take advantage of gravity. In this case, the must simply flows through the hoses and into the tanks as aided by gravity — instead of the other option, where the hose is ran up the side of the tank, which can stand at sometimes 30 to 50 feet tall, making a pump necessary to transport the must up to the tank’s opening.

High-end and smaller wineries are able to mitigate crushing, and even some large wineries take precautions to minimize crushing. Some buy special, large-diameter hoses that enable easier transportation of must, and others simply minimize the length of the pipe needed to transport must. Both of these methods reduce clogging and make it easier for whole berries to be sent through a hose — therefore, crushing may not be necessary.

In other cases, some wineries place sorted berries into vessels that are lifted and emptied into tanks. This operation must be planned from the building of the winery, though, as lifting tons of grapes isn’t an easy task.

Assistant Kosher Winemaker Yanky Drew and wine aficionado Lane load grapes into the hopper, where they are carried up a conveyor belt to the destemmer.
David noted that in France, his home country, there is no such term as “crush” to explain this process in winemaking. It is simply called “harvest” or “reception,” because grapes are received or harvested, not crushed.

At City Winery, we follow this idea and have a setup that enables us to only use conveyor belts to transport fruit during the destemming and sorting processes. Each tank has its own setup guidelines, custom for its size and location in the winery.

Once a load of grapes is received, we line up the bins of grapes outside the winery’s loading dock and bring them in to the winery piecemeal.

From there, the grapes are loaded onto the first conveyor belt, which carries grapes to the destemmer and is generally manned by two people. One person is in charge of dumping grapes into the hopper at the bottom of the belt, and the second is tasked with evenly loading the conveyor belt rungs with grapes (as pictured above).

The mechanical destemmer, the silver box at the head of the sorting table, is quite effective, but the team sifts through the grapes after destemming to make sure no stems made it through.
It is important that grapes be loaded evenly onto the first conveyor belt, so that the destemmer can work as efficiently as possible. Incoming grapes push grapes in the destemmer out onto the sorting table. Clogging can occur if too many grapes are loaded into the destemmer — and conversely, if too little grapes are loaded into the destemmer, they won’t supply enough force to push out the grapes in the machine, causing the team to lose time and efficiency.

A closer look at the sorting table.
Once the grapes fall onto the sorting table, the team takes one last look at the fruit to ensure that they are of top-notch quality. All remaining stems are removed, and expert sorters, such as our winemaker and assistant winemaker, are experienced enough to pick out grapes that are diseased or under-ripe.

After grapes pass the sorting table, they are transported up another conveyor belt into the tank, where maceration and fermentation take place.

Once the grapes are completely destemmed, another belt carries them up to the tank.
After the must is sent to the tank, it ideally goes through a cold soak, in which it is chilled at around 45 degrees. This process holds off the fermentation process and is meant to increase the amount of fresh aromas present in the fruit. At City Winery, the cold soak lasts for up to a week, but typically good fruit gets 3-4 days in a cold soak, as determined by the winemaker. For troublesome crops, though, that may be in danger of oxidizing or molding, the cold soak is skipped and fermentation starts as soon as the crop warms up, which generally takes about one day.

Some wineries implement a 10-day cold soaking period, with the belief that longer cold soaks yield more aromatic fruits. While difficult to prove, it may very well be true. However, in an urban winemaking environment such as ours, where space is limited, we have to think about logistics. The winemaker is constantly planning out when crops are coming in and when he will need to vacate tanks in order to receive new crops.

David noted that the most critical part of early-stage winemaking is choosing the date of press. The decision to stop maceration — the process by which the grape skins impart the desired color and amounts of tannins and aromas to the juice — in order to press is made no sooner than 24 hours in advance of the press.

Each day, the juices are monitored to make sure they are developing well and are not in danger of oxidation — when the winemaker finally feels that he has gotten everything he wants in his wines from the maceration and fermentation processes, he presses it.

That, my friends, is an overview of how City Winery destems and sorts its grapes. Let us know if you have questions in the comments below!

Photos courtesy of Hank Smeal, cellar intern