Christopher Nicolson has been the resident winemaker at Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery since 2008. Bearded, skull-capped and galoshed, he has the look of a fisherman who accidentally washed up in Brooklyn. And in a sense, he did.
Born and raised in Montana, Nicolson’s family has been fishing salmon in Alaska’s Bristol Bay for more than 200 years. When the salmon farming industry blew up in the late 1990s and devastated prices for wild salmon, Nicolson and his cousin launched the Iliamna Fish Co. to help sell their family’s yearly bounty directly to chefs like Dan Barber, as well as to home cooks. Their Community Supported Fishery (CSF) now consists of around 400 members in New York and a 1,000 in Portland, Oregon.
Each summer, in the months of June and July, Nicolson heads to Alaska to set up camp in Graveyard Point—the site of an abandoned cannery, built on top of an old Scandinavian fisherman’s cemetery in the 1930s—where he and his family fish with a crew of 20 people, including his brother, father and mother (a native Alaskan).
During the remaining 10 months of the year, Nicolson holds court in the unmarked warehouse at the mouth of the East River that houses Red Hook Winery. Here he works with winemakers Abe Schoener (of Scholium Project)—who he started his wine career with in the early 2000s—Bob Foley (of Robert Foley Vineyards) and Mark Snyder of the wine distribution company Angels’ Share to craft wines from New York State fruit. Hardworking and immediately disarming, he possesses a sort of meekness and humility that’s like pure ore in a city buried in ruthless ambition.
This welcoming spirit has—with important aid from Schoener, Foley and Snyder, who was the guy to bring this crazy band of winemakers together—helped turn Red Hook Winery into both a beacon for New York State wine production and an oasis for sommeliers and wine buyers looking to connect to the winemaking process in a city that has a easy way of making it feel worlds away.
“We’re just babies,” says Nicolson in reference to the nascent New York winemaking community. “We’re trying to learn more about this place and describe why it’s beautiful.”