If winetasting is on your agenda, you are probably considering a trip to Napa or Tuscany. The big apple is likely the last place you’d head for some viniculture immersion. But Latif Jiji, an Iraqi born Professor Emeritus at the Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York, makes 100 to 150 bottles of wine a year from his vineyard on the Upper East Side. Latif’s vineyard, aptly named Chateau Latif (a play on Chateau Laffitte, a wine estate in France where one of the world’s most expensive wines is produced) is the only one in Manhattan. The vineyard stems from a vine in the backyard of Latif’s brownstone and climbs up the middle of the building, allowing grapes to be harvested from the columns of windows on either side. The vine then reaches the roof where it is trellised over a series of wooden, steel and bamboo beams, forming a canopy of grape leaves. When Latif and his wife Vera first moved into the house she took charge of the garden design. But one summer afternoon in 1977 Latif surreptitiously planted one tiny vine. At first his wife didn’t notice, but one year the Jijis went away for the summer and upon their return they were both stunned to find grapes growing in their backyard. And so began Chateau Latif.
Latif was inspired to grow grapes by his father who made wine for his family is Basra, Iraq, where Latif grew up. But even though Latif was familiar with winemaking he was unsure of how to go about it himself. Being an academic, he initially tried to follow all the rules. When the vine started producing grapes, Latif devoured all the information he could about winemaking. Seeing as it was 1984 and and there was no such thing as a google search, he had to scramble for advise, even writing to Cornell extension to get handbooks. The more he read the more frustrated he became as no two instructions were alike and every book warned of dire consequences if strict procedure was not followed. But then Latif remembered that his father wasn’t careful. For example, Latif kept reading about the importance of ensuring that the barrel was completely closed, but there was no such thing as air locks for wine barrels in Basra in the early 1940’s. The cover of of the Jiji’s wine barrel was usually half open and they still produced great wine. Latif also says everything he read warned that a wrong move would result in vinegar instead of wine. Ironically, try as he might, Latif has never been able to make vinegar.
So the winemaking process at Chateu Latif is much more simplified than the average winery. Initially, when there wasn’t a large harvest, the Jiji’s used a wooden cylinder to crush the grapes. But when the harvest reached 100 or 200 pounds, Latif purchased a crusher destemmer, a clever Italian machine which essentially crushes the grapes and separates them from the stems. Since he doesn’t know how much natural yeast is in the grapes and there might not be enough for them to ferment, Latif then kills the natural yeast with metabisulfite. This step requires care because if too little is added there will still be natural yeast, but if too much is added the wine will develop a bad taste. Latif then adds the right amount of yeast for fermentation to occur. To store the fermenting juice, Latif uses glass jars instead of barrels which are harder to clean. The juice is opaque when it is first bottled and Latif says he used to use additives to separate the sediment from the liquid. But once again he realized the ancient Greeks, Hebrews, Romans, and Arabs didn’t separate the sediment. So Latif just allows the sediment to settle by itself. The juice clears after around 6 or 7 months and is bottled after about 9 or 10 months so the jars are empty in time for the next harvest. Latif describes the flavor of his wine as fruity and on the dry side.
Latif keeps accounts of every year’s harvest. The record amount of grapes harvested is over 700 pounds, but it fluctuates with last year’s harvest coming in at 450 pounds. The first entry records the inaugural harvest which took place in 1984 with only two participants, Latif and Lissa, his daughter. But after ten or fifteen years, as the vine grew, it became clear more help was needed. Now the Jiji’s friends and friends of friends show up for the annual harvest. The group usually consists of about 20 to 25 people and has become a multigenerational event with Latif’s grandkids partaking in the picking. The harvest begins at around 10 o’clock and wraps up at 4 or 5, after which everyone comes together to drink and feast after a hard day’s work.
Latif sees roofs as an incredibly underutilized resource for growing produce in urban areas. There can be somewhat of a stigma around green roofs as being troublesome and many landlords are hesitant about allowing farmers to dump heaps of earth on their roofs which could result in leaks and infrastructural damage. But with grapes, there is no soil on the roof itself. Rather, a vineyard can transform a roof into a place that is pleasantly shaded in the summer when the vine is in full bloom but allows the sun through in the winter when the leaves have fallen. Growing produce has also helped Latif connect with his family and his past, and he is not alone in being a city dweller who has a family tradition of agriculture. Many people who live in urban areas have grandparents of even parents that grew food that was culturally important to them, and through these innovative urban farming strategies those traditions can be revived. Latif says green roofs are a real missed opportunity that he hopes someday will be taken advantage of in urban areas around the world. Sometimes it takes growing four stories high to deepen your roots.