Who needs the Red Sea when you have the Hudson? For Brian Leventhal, crossing that river from his home in Manhattan to New Jersey delivered him to a land of flowing not with milk and honey, but pinot and cabernet.
Leventhal, owner of the gleaming, recently opened District Winery, would trek from his tech job in Manhattan along with his friend, coworker (and now winery co-owner) John Stires, to a mom-and-pop wine operation in New Jersey at least once a month. He fell cork-over-heels in love with the hands-on experience there, but realized there was nothing like it in New York itself and set out to create his own space.
“Two resignation letters, a lot of support from family and friends, some drywall, and well… the rest is history,” Leventhal says with a smile, decanter in hand. He and Stires opened Brooklyn Winery in 2010 to make premium small-batch wines in the heart of the city. Given urbanites’ obsession with all things local, it was a smart move.
This summer, he inaugurated a second location: District Winery, this city’s first winery. It now crushes the grape game in Yards Park, within sight of Nationals Stadium and a panorama of the Anacostia River.
Well before he began making merlot for a living, however, Leventhal was a kid in Westchester, New York. Raised in a traditional Reform family, he spent a month in Israel in high school, confirming a passion for his culture.
“The Jewish tradition of spending time together while eating lots of good food and sharing life’s stories is at the cornerstone of my values,” he explains.
That philosophy led him to leave a corporate gig and get into something a bit more interactive. A winery is a bit like a startup, albeit with less coding and more chardonnay.
As for that much-misunderstood wine, Leventhal says that his “favorite kinds of customers are the ones that come in and say, ‘I hate chardonnay.’ They give me the opportunity to show off the depth of our wines, including a steel-barrel chardonnay that’s very different from the buttery, oak-barrel bottles we’re used to.”
Educating and creating an immersive experience for the community is what District Winery is all about.
“When deciding where to live in DC, it was critical to be an active participant in the same community in which District Winery is located. I decided to move into an apartment directly across the street from where I work.” The winery’s been a huge supporter of Anacostia River community organizations, especially since it sits on the river’s banks.
The facility itself is a bold and modern construct of glass and steel, three stories of complex wine engagement from nose to palate. The first floor hosts the 3,200-square-foot winemaking space of soaring, floor-to-ceiling steel tanks (tours are available on the weekends), as well as aging barrels set and endless racks of bottles waiting to be served behind a wall of glass. There’s also a tidy wine bar set right at the entrance, bathed in natural light.
On the other side of the first floor is Ana, the restaurant, which pays homage to the river outside. Upper stories feature fine wood furnishings and comfy seating, dedicated to tasting and event spaces.
Chef Benjamin Lambert, formerly of 701 and Restaurant Nora, shares, “I make dishes that are inspired from my travels and life experiences. It was a lunch at Joan Nathan’s house where I had shakshuka and recalled having really liked it.” His brilliant chartreuse shakshuka, made with green harissa, takes it up a notch. He also found gold in Ana’s brunch potato pancake—otherwise known as a latke—served with smoked salmon mousse and dusted with (what else?) everything spice.
As for the wines, Head Winemaker Conor McCormack blends old-world style with contemporary flair and a focus on sourcing, working with domestic small-batch growers. California growers feature prominently, as do New York locales (Finger Lakes, Long Island North Fork). In 2017, District Winery will receive more than 100 tons of grapes of 15 different varieties, to be served in 2018; glasses poured today were produced in the Brooklyn facility.
In the end, the location in DC was almost predestined. “We looked at many, many cities, but DC rose to the top of the list pretty quickly. We loved not only how much the dining scene was evolving here, but the city in general—there are a lot of interesting people here doing big things and we wanted to be a part of that. The fact that we could legally operate as a winemaking facility, restaurant and events space under one roof made the decision a lot easier, too. The response from the community has been great—we really couldn’t have asked for more from our neighbors and guests.”
Plus, as Leventhal points out, from the vine to fermentation to bottling, a glass of wine goes through as much of a journey as the Jewish people.
District Winery Tasting Bar, 202-484-9210, 385 Water St SE, Washington, DC, Monday–Thursday 1–9 pm, Friday–Sunday 12–9 pm. Not kosher.
With the exception of Brian Leventhal’s headshot, all photos by Evan Caplan