The Mystery of the ‘Moonshine’ Grappa in Red Hook

Was a Brooklyn winemaker's arrest a case of bureaucratic bungling–or an illegal distillery hiding in plain sight?

Red Hook Winery owner Mark Snyder with aging barrels in 2010 (Photo by Tamara Beckwith/NY Post/MEGA)

It wasn’t quite like Eliot Ness’s Untouchables raiding a secret, Prohibition-era distillery under the cover of darkness, tommy guns locked and loaded. There were no axes taken to doomed wooden crates of liquor, no one watching the good stuff wash down a sewer drain.

But the New York City Sheriff’s Office did log an arrest last week in which they charged Mark Snyder, owner of Red Hook Winery, with housing what the State Liquor Authority (SLA) called an “illegal moonshine operation,” making the first collar of its kind in the city in over two decades. The SLA headlined its announcement with a taste of Untouchables drama: “State Liquor Authority Busts Brooklyn Bootlegging Operation.”

An inspection team discovered “four unlicensed stills, in addition to over forty cases of illegally manufactured spirits packaged and stored in the back of the winery,” the SLA said in a statement. The state authority says the stills were connected to “gas powered heat sources” and that there was a dangerous “makeshift electrical box with open, exposed wires” above the gas burners. The liquor being distilled was grappa, the Italian-style brandy made from the residue of grapes after they’ve been pressed in winemaking. 

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The grappa stills seized by the State Liquor Authority at Red Hook Winery last week (Photo by SLA)

“It wasn’t a moonshine operation,” Snyder told the New York Post, reportedly with a laugh. “This is an administrative issue and a misunderstanding. We’re a small craft-beverage producer.”

To hear Snyder’s lawyer tell it, the raid was an abrupt move in an otherwise orderly conversation about the status of the distillery. “Mr. Snyder’s arrest is quite shocking because he had been fully cooperating with both the SLA and the TTB,” Snyder’s lawyer Diane Ferrone told The Bridge, the latter an acronym for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Ferrone said Snyder wasn’t available for further comment.

Ferrone says there’s documentation that, as far back as October 2017, Snyder was complying with TTB requests to cease production of the grappa pending the resolution of compliance issues, and that the distillery was no longer operational. Ferrone says the TTB had previously inspected the disabled distillery, and that the already packaged grappa, wrapped in cellophane, was not hidden from view. “There are numerous factual inaccuracies in the statement put out by the SLA,” Ferrone added.

According to the official complaint at the DA’s office, an informant told a Sheriff’s Office detective that the still was in fact operational, as the SLA said was the case when investigators showed up last Wednesday afternoon.

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A City Tech professor and students participating in a Wines of the World class at Red Hook Winery (Photo by Arden Phillips)

Snyder’s operation is often upheld as one of the borough’s up-from-bootstraps success stories. He launched the winery on Red Hook’s Pier 41 in 2008 with the goal of highlighting the viniculture of the North Fork and Finger Lakes.  Four years later, the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy engulfed the winery, destroying three vintages of wine, Snyder said in a panel discussion on the storm’s fifth anniversary. While the winery’s damages grew to nearly $3 million, he said, “I made an early commitment to recover. I didn’t want to disappoint my employees and all the small growers I had been working with.” The winery has supported the Red Hook Initiative to empower youth in the neighborhood and has worked with City Tech to host a college course on Wines of the New World.

But last week its owner was arrested. Snyder had been cooperative during the inspection, authorities said, and dismantled the stills when ordered. The sheriff’s deputies seized the four stills in addition to palettes of illegal spirits, while SLA investigators confiscated six bottles from the winery’s tasting room. Then the Brooklyn District Attorney charged Snyder with selling an alcoholic beverage without a license and illegally storing the liquor, both misdemeanors.  

Another of Snyder’s lawyers, John Hinman, who represents Red Hook Winery in matters of compliance, hinted at bureaucratic ineptitude as the cause for arrest. “We are not sure how well or effectively the two agencies are coordinating their activities,” he said in a statement, referring to the SLA and TTB. “But we continue to offer our full on-going cooperation.” He added that the production of the grappa was intended to “minimize urban winery organic waste.” Asked what could have led to Snyder being charged if he was so transparent about his operation, his lawyer Ferrone replied, “If you get an answer to that, let me know.”

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The sample bottles of hooch were among the items seized by the sheriff’s office (Photo by the SLA)

Indeed, the grappa-making operation had been a point of pride in recent years. On a page on the winery’s website that was live at least until last June but has since been taken down, the winery’s shop foreman Colin Alevras tells how he worked for years to learn the craft of making grappa from pomace, the leftover pressings from winemaking.

“As a Brooklyn native, wine lover and distributor of fine wines, Mark [Snyder] promotes the home team with more than just talk,” wrote Alevras. “He has very generously allowed me to begin producing grappa at the winery, under my own eponymous label, C. Alevras.”

The SLA, for its part, seems surprised by the situation too. “The discovery of an illegal moonshine operation in the heart of Brooklyn is nothing short of shocking, given how easy an inexpensive it is to obtain a distiller’s license in New York State,” declared Christoper Riano, counsel to the authority. Indeed, the state has eased regulation on distilling as an economy-boosting move, which has fostered a rising industry in BrooklynRiano told The Bridge that Snyder has a license to operate his winery as a wholesaler, but “irrespective of that, the lack of both a federal permit and a license to engage in distilling is something that I think was surprising to us.”

Such a permit costs $1,450. “Obviously at this moment the primary concern I believe from a public-safety standpoint was to ensure that these homemade stills, which were connected to gas lines that were right next to open electrical boxes, were no longer allowed to stay there in operation,” Riano said. 

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Red Hook Winery’s neighbors are scratching their heads too. Charles Flickinger, who owns Flickinger Glassworks, a glass-bending design company situated close to the winery, told The Bridge he was taken aback by the episode. “Nicer neighbors you couldn’t have,” Flickinger said of Snyder, who he called “a very stand-up guy,” and his winery’s team. “They’re always inclusive and thinking of other people besides themselves.” Flickinger said he lost his company’s forklift during Hurricane Sandy and since then, the winery has loaned Flickinger its forklift on a regular basis. “Not only that, they insisted they have their forklift operator unload our glass for us, and that’s huge,” Flickinger added.

Red Hook Winery remains open for business. Visitors to the facility can enjoy $15 wine tastings daily from noon to 6 p.m.–none of the hard stuff, though.

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.

  • JamesBkny

    Didn’t grease the right palms… :/

  • Conjeo148

    As a legal distiller, I can say 2 things with absolute certainty. First, as a winery owner he would have known it is absolutely illegal to have a still at the same address as a licensed winery. Not should have, but he would have. There is no way the feds would have issued a permit to a distillery at the same physical address of a winery or brewery. Second, it is absolutely illegal to possess a working still on a bonded premise, or even the major parts of a still without it being registered. It’s called constructive possession and the TTB is the only regulatory branch that can prosecute those cases. The bonded premise is technically federal property. Before I became legal if I had been caught bootlegging worst case scenario I’d have gotten a $100 fine, maybe 3 days. Now I’d be looking at tax evasion, illegal possession of untaxed liquor and a whole other host of federal violations.