Interest in wine is growing in the U.S. – earlier this year the country took the title of largest wine-consuming nation, passing France for the first time. France, however, still reigns when it comes to per-capita consumption.

Wine production is also burgeoning in the States. The U.S. is the fourth largest producer of wine, and it experienced nearly a 14% increase in production between 2006 and 2009, making it the only country of the top five producers to experience positive growth.

While 89% of U.S. wine production takes place in California, a new trend is making its way to center stage: urban winemaking.

The urban winemaking revolution has its roots in San Francisco, and a few wineries have also sprouted up in New York City in the past few years, two of which are City Winery and Brooklyn Winery.

Besides making great wines in urban settings, both wineries offer winemaking programs, where individuals and small groups can learn how to make their own wines.

We interviewed City Winery winemaker David Lecomte and Brooklyn Winery CEO Brian Leventhal about the ins and outs of their programs. Read on for details about both and let us know your thoughts on urban winemaking in the comments below.

The Barrel Ownership Program at City Winery

The barrel ownership and customized wine label program at City Winery enables individuals to be a part of the full winemaking process.

“Our barrel members gain access to the whole process of winemaking, from crushing to bottling, says winemaker David Lecomte. “Most of the winemaking is done physically by the full-time City Winery staff, however members can come by appointment once or twice a week during harvest and 1-2 times a month during the aging process to understand the winemaking process in detail. Before bottling, members custom blend their wine and custom design the label.”

The program’s pricing is based upon barrel and crop prices. For starters, there is a base membership fee of $5,000. From there, members choose what type of grapes they’d like to work with and which type of barrel the wine will age in. Grapes range in price from $2,100 to $4,000. Used French oak barrels are free, but new oak is available for an additional $800. If the program cost is a bit out of range, Lecomte recommends sharing the cost of production with friends, family members or coworkers. The winery also offers a barrel share program, which costs 20-25% less and entails sharing a barrel with other members.

The winery offers all single vineyard grapes from California, Oregon and New York during the fall crush and Chile and Argentina for the spring crush. In total, the winery offers 10 varietals from 14 vineyards. Lecomte visits the west coast 2-4 times per year to inspect crops at the vineyards that he sources from, and all selections are block-specific, allowing for higher quality control.

The winery offered its first harvest of barrel ownership in 2008 – since then, more than 700 barrels have been produced through the program.

The Winemaking Program at Brooklyn Winery

Brooklyn Winery offered its first vintage through its winemaking program in 2010 – 30 barrels were produced for clients, and they expect to grow the program substantially in 2011, says CEO Brian Levanthal.

The winery offers three program levels: full barrel, half barrel and quarter barrel. Here’s a breakdown of what clients learn in each level:

  • Full Barrel: “Clients have the opportunity work with our winemaker to customize their wine based on a variety of factors that ultimately determine the flavor profile of their wine,” says Levanthal. “Additionally, clients are provided ongoing information regarding the progress of their wine, have opportunities for ‘hands on’ work with their grapes with our ‘crush’ and ‘press’ activities, taste their wine while in barrel to experience the evolution of their wine as it approaches bottling, design their own custom wine label and lastly, blend their wine, and bottle their wine.” As an added bonus, full-barrel clients have the opportunity to attend the winery’s annual harvest party with other winemaking clients and can participate in the winery’s wine education classes. Pricing depends on which grape varietal a client chooses and ranges from $6,000 to $8,400.
  • Half Barrel: “Clients have many of the same opportunities that are offered at the full barrel level, with the exception of being directly involved with the wine plan,” explained Levanthal. Pricing depends on the grape varietal and ranges from $3,300 to $4,700.
  • Quarter Barrel: “We consider this an elevated retail experience,” says Levanthal, “as our clients are given exposure to the winemaking process through our harvest party, opportunity to taste barrel samples, attend wine education classes and receive periodic updates on the progress of their wine.” Pricing depends on varietal once again, and ranges from $1,750 to $2,450.

Grapes are single vineyard, but clients may choose to blend their wine. Levanthal explained the varietal options:

“This fall we are offering a wide selection, including Riesling (Finger Lakes, NY), Chardonnay (Finger Lakes, NY and Sonoma, CA), Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa and Sonoma options), Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley and Carneros options), Zinfandel (Lodi, CA), Merlot (North Fork, Long Island), Syrah (Mendocino, CA), Petit Sirah (Sonoma), Cabernet Franc (North Fork).”

Levanthal concluded, “At Brooklyn Winery, we want to make sure that all of our clients have a great experience making wine. We have structured our winemaking programs for different levels of client engagement and the ultimate goal of bringing people closer to the wine they drink. We are serious about our wine, but just as serious about having a great time making it!”

Images courtesy of Brooklyn Winery and City Winery