By New York City Correspondent Sasha Smith
This fall I went to the launch party for BOE, a winery housed in a converted warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (BOE is short for Brooklyn Oenology.) Founded by engineer-turned-winemaker Alie Shaper, BOE released its first wines this fall, a 2005 Chardonnay and a 2005 Merlot. While the fruit comes from the North Fork and the wines are made in Mattituck at Premium Wine Group, the rest of this endeavor is thoroughly Brooklyn-based. Alie says that the winery was created “in the spirit of Brooklyn’s artisanal resurgence,” and points to the many artists and artisans that populate the borough, from graphic designers to brewers. In fact, her wine labels showcase the work of Brooklyn artists Tracy Silva Barbosa (Chardonnay) and Bert Esenherz (Merlot).
BOE is pretty much a one-woman
show, and Alie’s energy and drive are truly inspiring. I caught
up with her after the launch party to find out more about her background
and what it takes to start up a winery in the middle of Brooklyn.
After attending the event, I wanted to know a bit more, so I asked Alie a few questions.
Sasha Smith: Why did you decided to start BOE?
Alie Shaper: Aside from the obvious reason of wanting to make my own wine, I was inspired by Brooklyn itself, by its heritage as well as its renaissance. I have pride in Brooklyn, and I love living here.
There is a history of winemaking
in Brooklyn, even more so on a home-operation scale than on a commercial
scale. It is a personal art form, created in the home and the
community, and shared at the dinner table with family and friends, with
pride for what was crafted for a good meal. It seemed natural
to me to bring that craft to a larger market, and present it as a piece
of everyday enjoyment and culture that everyone can tap into and enjoy.
SS: What do you see as the
connection between local Brooklyn artists/artisans and wine?
AS: Of course the connection between the fine arts and BOE wine is pretty strong, but the connection is much more about the artistic character of Brooklyn.
There are artisans of every kind living in Brooklyn. And by artisan, I don't mean just a painter or sculptor, but also the the actor, the dancer, the furniture maker, the jeweler, the fashion designer, the coffee roaster, the baker, the restaurant owner, the brewer... and so why not the winemaker? As I mentioned before, Brooklyn is full of them; it's already in the Brooklyn fabric.
BOE is my way of bringing art into
everyday life. When you buy a bottle of BOE, you buy both wine and an
artwork. You can peel the label off and put it on your fridge, and you
have a thought-provoking piece in your home. It's also on your table
when you go to a party, or it's at your local bar. You get to be close
to the artists' work, and learn about something cool being created
where you live. You're also, of course, buying good wine; I'm very
proud of this first vintage. I believe that everyone deserves to have
quality and beauty in their life, and that it should be attainable.
SS: Tell me a little more about your background.
AS: I grew up on Long Island and went to school at Cornell University, where I got an engineering degree. I became a manufacturing engineer and moved out to California after graduation to work in the Silicon Valley. While at Cornell, though, I got the wine bug from taking the Hotel School's Introduction to Wines class, which continually attracts many hundreds of seniors each semester... go figure. Upon moving to California, I kept up the hobby, but didn't actually get involved in the wine industry until I returned to New York four years later. I took some time off from engineering, and wanting to have a fun job for a while, I took a tasting room job at Rivendell in the Hudson Valley.
Soon after I started, Bob Ransom and Susan Wine, who own Rivendell, opened Vintage New York in SoHo, and then I transferred to their store. I really got the bug then and began to educate myself. I enrolled myself in the London Wine & Spirits Education Trust certificate program. In the meantime, I returned to an engineering operations position, but maintained part-time hours at the wine shop.
I continued on the double-career track for a couple of years. After my stint at Vintage, and while getting deeper experience in manufacturing and operations by day, I became a sommelier at a restaurant on Long Island by night and weekends. That work expanded into assisting the wine programs at two other establishments that were in my restaurant's group.
Finally, I jumped the engineering ship. By this time, what started as a "fun job" had now become a real sense of direction. I knew I wanted to be in the wine industry. I took a full-time position at Southern Wine & Spirits in a marketing and promotions group to learn about the distribution side of the business. I also knew by then that my ultimate goal was to open my own winery someday; I just didn't know when.
I had first come up with the
idea of opening a Brooklyn winery about 2 1/2 years ago, shortly after
I moved to Brooklyn. I was in the Red Hook neighborhood down by
the Beard Street warehouses, reflecting on the neighborhood's history
and transformation. Red Hook used to be a major shipping port
for New York, and the Beard Street warehouses were constructed for that
industry. The neighborhood's industry faded after the construction
of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and Red Hook became a downtrodden
area. But I thought to myself, wow, this whole place is changed,
and in a major way, industry was reborn!
Those warehouses were,
and are, filled with all sorts of new businesses, like glass blowing,
parachute design, an advertising agency, and so on. And all that
was going on in these very historical places; it was like looking at
the past and future at the same time. It occurred to me that this
was the very nature of so many parts of Brooklyn, that it had always
been, and still is, a place of movement and making.
So I stewed with this idea for a while,
and shaped it and honed it, and figured out how to go about starting
this winery. In the summer of 2006 I obtained a position at Premium
Wine Group in Mattituck, where I now make the BOE wine. I worked both
in the lab and in the cellar, and it was a great hands-on education.
There are several producers at Premium, so it was an opportunity to
observe varying techniques and to taste their results. Not long after
that, I officially incorporated and I got started on my own wines.
SS: What's been the most challenging thing about starting up BOE?
AS: Dealing with the State Liquor
Authority. I won't say much about that, except that I almost have
an aneurism every time I hear those three words together.
On a more practical note, the big
challenge was developing the courage to start the business at all...
and it's a continual task to keep up the courage. Also, it is a bunch
of guesswork to decide how much product to make.
I was really well prepared for this
because of my engineering and business background. Winemaking sounds
glamorous and idyllic, but the truth is that there is a lot of dirty
work and boring tasks that come with making wine and with running a
business. I knew very well to expect that from my experience building
other products. Wine still requires some engineering-style thinking;
it's a food product instead of a piece of electronics. There is art to
it as well; it's a skill to see how and when all the processes should
SS: How would you describe your winemaking style?
AS: Well, I don't think there is a
definitive style that will govern all my wines. I have personal
preferences for French-styled wines , so that steers my winemaking
process. I don't consider myself a total traditionalist or purist,
though. Basically, I work towards well-balanced wines that have
complexity and show fresh varietal character. I'm also personally
interested in non-traditional blends, so you may see that in future
SS: What are your long-term goals for BOE?
AS: Firstly, I will be making more
wine! Currently in production are the next vintages of Chardonnay
and Merlot, as well as two more white wines, and two more red wines.
Right now the business consists of sales and distribution operations in Greenpoint, and the production operation on the North Fork. I will probably next open a small tasting room in Brooklyn, along with a warehouse, after the portfolio expands. Ultimately, I want to transplant the winemaking operation, and make bona-fide Brooklyn wine. Maybe I can even convince Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz to let me grow grapes in Prospect Park!
Additionally, I want BOE to
be a company that is involved with the Brooklyn community, that supports
the arts, metered progress, and the betterment of life in our borough.
The wines are also available for purchase directly through the winery. Orders can be placed by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or calling 718-576-1481. The Chardonnay is $15, and the Merlot is $18, plus tax and the cost of shipping. At present, BOE is only able to ship within New York State.