Picking Grapes Off the Vine from the JiJi Family Rooftop Vineyard
Labor Day weekend in New York City, I headed to my friend Elyssa's family's annual grape harvest and wine making day. The harvest was not in the Finger Lakes or the Northfork of Long Island, but a subway ride away on Manhattan's Upper East Side. I was told was not to bring a gift and to come wearing clothing that could get sticky. I was intrigued. I imagined the family must craft their wine from grapes delivered from some upstate farm. However, after I was led up four stories of the brownstone, and then up an additional narrow staircase to the roof, I began to comprehend the vertical wonder that is Latif Jiji's family-run rooftop vineyard and winery.
Peeking out on top of the vines Photo by Bonnie Hulkower
The roof was covered with vines full of green grapes that dangled from a homemade trellis made out of bamboo. Only if you peeked through the lush canopy could you see the taller surrounding apartment buildings. When I looked down upon the backyard, I could see grape vines cascading all the way to the ground level garden like green locks of Rapunzel's hair.
It wasn't always like this. Latif Jiji planted a single grape vine in the backyard in 1977, and then basically forgot about it. Latif is an award -winning, engineering professor, who was inspired by his father, an amateur winemaker who made red wine while Latif was a boy in Basra. Latif said his father's technique was "crude" and there was always sediment in the bottom. So he started to make wine very differently from how his father had made it. He read about wine making and followed the rules very carefully.
Latif had no model for a vineyard that creeps over the roof. But over the years the vine grew like Jack's Beanstalk, but with lots of green grapes. Currently the vines cover the roof which is about 45 feet long. 1984 was the first year the family harvested the grapes for wine. That year they had 24 lbs of grapes and pounded them with their hands in the basement to make wine. Eventually Latif's family began using a tool he devised, a rod with a flat bottom that is something like a garlic press.
This year, Latif's family collected 350 lbs of grapes, which is expected to yield 70 bottles of wine. When my eyes popped at this number, I was told it was nothing. In 2009, the family collected 700 lbs of grapes and made 150 bottles. The lower yield this year was partially blamed on Hurricane Irene.
Even with modernized equipment, harvesting 350 lbs of grapes still takes a lot of teamwork. When I arrived in the afternoon, there were about 30 people working. Elyssa Jiji lowers the baskets from the roof using a rope-pulley. Other folks rinse off the grapes. Another person supervises the press machine; many people want to try it, so the supervisor lets the newbies try it since that is part of the fun. Kids help out, taking turns with the crusher crank.
The crushed grape juice is stored in 5 gallon glass jugs, and that is when the chemistry team comes in. They add sugar, to increase the alcoholic content, and also add tannins and enzymes to help with clearing the wine so it doesn't become foggy. The next day they add yeast.
So how does the homemade wine taste? Niagara grapes, Vitis labrusca, a juicy pale green grape are more commonly served as table grapes for eating; they are rarely used for wine making. The glass I had was fruity, sweet and smooth. But Latif told me the quality varies from year to year and depends on where the grapes were picked (2009 was an especially good year, the grapes grown on the roof are usually sweeter).
If you're wondering where you can buy the wine, sadly the wine isn't sold. It is only shared with family and friends. Latif called his label Chateau Latif--a play on the Rothschild Chateau Lafite. The wine bottles themselves are a labor of love. The family has a Chanukah party where they gather around the table and decorate the artwork for the wine labels.
I was sent home with a bottle of "Chateau Latif." Because Château Latif' is the only winery in Manhattan that both grows its own grapes and uses them to make its own wine, my green bottle is my favorite bottle of wine in 2011 by far.