Devin Shomaker’s vineyard is located at an altitude of exactly five floors above sea level. It sits on a roof in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard with views of the Freedom Tower, a public housing project, and a natural gas cogeneration facility topped with two soaring smokestacks. The vines are planted not in the earth underfoot, but in waist-high aluminum planters, created from scratch by Shomaker and his partner Chris Papalia. They have also designed the vineyard’s soil: Far from being found in nature, the mixture is a blend of crushed recycled glass and perlite pebbles that was developed with Skyland USA, a provider of “engineered soil.” It was trucked in from a manufacturing plant in New Jersey, and specifically produced to have a pH of 7.3—slightly basic to accommodate the acid rain that can plague cities like New York. Besides the vines, the roof’s only other nod to nature is a runner of neon green astroturf, which is Shomaker’s homage to a field.
“We’ll be enclosing this back area in turf and making a meadow scene,” Shomaker explained to me, one chilly afternoon in December. He and Papalia, bundled in fleece jackets, had taken a break from dismantling a deck to lead me on a tour of their nearly two hundred vines.
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In other settings, these growing conditions might collectively be labeled the vineyard’s “terroir,” a French term you’ve invariably heard mentioned if you’ve ever bought a bottle of wine. But here, at a former warship manufacturing site, the word seems incongruous. Terroir is generally used to describe the ways a vineyard’s natural environment, from altitude to climate, leaves its mark on wines. It’s often effectively synonymous with quality: many critics argue that a hallmark of great wines is that they taste of their terroir. Some contend it’s what makes natural wines so special, or helps explain why certain bottles, like a Grand Cru from Burgundy’s Vosne-Romanée, cost ten times more than others.