How This 29-Year-Old Became Brooklyn’s Wine King
Brian Leventhal is high on life and for good reason. At just 29 years old, he is co-founder and CEO of Brooklyn Winery, a winery/bar/events facility in Williamsburg, the hottest neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. And not only is his business surviving, it’s thriving; he reports revenues in the $1 million to $5 million range.
The company is on par to host more than 40 weddings this year and have several dozen employees including a crackerjack wine maker from the Bay Area who, in Leventhal’s words, “is revolutionizing the wine industry in the New York region.” Leventhal (pictured, left) admits to not sleeping much, but who cares? Success is sweet.
I sat down with Leventhal to hear about his business and how, in Brooklyn of all places, a winery is able to reach such heights of popularity.
Could you tell me a little about your background?
I’m from Westchester, NY. I went to Washington University in St. Louis and ran a water company there, delivering office coolers to dorms. I sold the company when I graduated in 2005 and moved to New York City to work as a consultant for McKinsey. After two years there, I worked at ExpoTV.com for three years before starting Brooklyn Winery.
How did the idea for Brooklyn Winery come about?
On my first day at Expo, an employee approached me about joining a wine making group. About six of my colleagues were involved, and they would go down to New Jersey where you could make wine for fun. I decided to join and for the next three years we would trek out to New Jersey by train and then bus and then walking along railroad tracks to this mom-and-pop operation. I’m not sure if it was even legal. We went about five times per year, and every year we’d make a barrel of wine and split it.
In August 2009, John [Stires], one of my co-workers [and now co-founder of Brooklyn Winery] (pictured, right), and I were having a drink and asking ourselves why we couldn’t just make wine in New York City. That is where it all began.
Did you and John get right to work?
Yes, we really ran with the idea of starting our own wine making class here in the city. We started meeting for lunch in fall 2009 and researching where to put such a facility. John lived in Brooklyn at the time, and I was in Manhattan, but we really loved the pride and passion of people who lived in Brooklyn and wanted to be part of that.
We wrote up a business plan over Christmas 2009. Our idea was to create a place where people could make their own wine. We would also have event space, a wine bar and have our own house wine. In January 2010 we started looking at sites where we could do this and found an 8,000-square-foot facility in Williamsburg. We quit our jobs at Expo in February 2010 to work full-time on the project.
What challenges did you face starting out?
Well, from February 2010 to June 2010 we needed to raise money, find a wine maker, get licenses to be a winery and secure a lease. All of those were massive challenges. The lease process ended up being really painful because another group was competing for the space, and it wasn’t zoned correctly. Then, we needed a signed letter from the New York City Department of Buildings saying we could put a winery there. It just took a lot of time.
How did you secure capital?
We didn’t want to be backed by an institution because we didn’t want to be beholden to anyone, so we started with friends and family. We ended up raising a little more than $1 million in our first round. (Get more tips on raising capital.)
How did you find a wine maker?
We wanted someone who had a great technical background and knew his or her stuff, and we were super lucky to find that in Conor McCormack (pictured, center). We put out an ad on WineJobs.com, a centralized site for the industry, and got hundreds of applications. It was a pretty coveted position, to start your own winery, work with clients and do it in New York City.
We missed Conor’s application at first, but he submitted again, and I gave him a call. We were basing our model off Crushpad, a winemaking facility in Sonoma, Calif. He was currently working at Crushpad, which made him perfect. We ended up flying him out and making him our first employee. He is unbelievable. The wines he is producing are beyond belief. He’s taken quality to another level.
What does Brooklyn Winery offer?
We offer classes on how to make wine, a wine bar with great food, an event space and live music. Our events business is especially exploding, and we’ve even hired a staff to take care of that side of the business. We have close to 40 people on staff now.
What lessons have you learned throughout this process?
I’ve learned that there is nothing you can’t do. It is all about being proactive and pushing yourself. Even after we achieve something, it’s nice to take a quick breather but then it’s time to push the accelerator even harder.
I’ve also learned that managing people is hard. I’d never done that before, and it was strange to tell a 50-year-old employee what to do. I always tell my employees that if they are dreading work on Sunday evening, they need to come and talk to me. I promote an open dialogue. (Get more tips on managing employees.)
What does the future hold for you and Brooklyn Winery?
In two years, our facility will be running like clockwork. Every date will be booked for weddings and corporate functions. It will be known as the best wine bar in New York City. In five years, we will have increased distribution and offshoot facilities.
As for me, I’ll be here for 10 years, minimum. After that, who knows?
What advice can you give budding entrepreneurs?
If you look at 100 people, 50 are content with what they are doing, 49 talk about doing something else, and one of those people is actually doing what they want to do. My advice is to move from being in the 49 to being the one that does something. What’s the worst that could happen if you fail? (Get more tips on coping with failure.)
Also, it’s really important to have a great partner. Someone who isn’t your best friend, but will compliment you, offer a different set of skills and share your overall vision.
Photo credit: Courtesy Brooklyn Winery