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When imagining a vineyard, the picture that usually comes to mind is one of the rolling hills of Tuscany, the sunny fields of California, or the lush vines of southern France. The rooftop of an Upper East Side brownstone is not what you’d typically imagine, but that is where you’ll find Chateau Latif, Manhattan’s only vineyard.
Chateau Latif’s creator and caretaker is Latif Jiji, a 90-year-old engineering professor who lives in the brownstone with his wife Vera. In 1977, Vera turned their 15-by-45 foot backyard into a garden with flowering annuals and perennials, a cherry tree and an evergreen. Latif’s contribution was a small grape vine. Eventually, that small vine grew 100 feet tall and began to snake all the way up the side of the building and onto the roof. The first harvest in 1984 yielded 24 pounds of grapes, enough to make nine bottles of wine. The largest harvest the Jijis have produced so far weighed a whopping 712 pounds.
Latif didn’t plant the vine with the intention of making his own wines, but after seeing the bounty it produced, he decided to read up on the craft. Growing up in a Jewish family in Iraq, wine was always part of his life. In the city of Basra where he grew up, his father made his own wine with grapes he grew in the family’s courtyard. Latif moved to America in 1947 after Jews in Iraq were subjected to years of violence known as the Farhud.
For the Jijis, winemaking continues to be a family affair. Every year, friends and relatives gather on Latif’s roof to harvest and smash the grapes. Some have been participating in the harvest since the very beginning over thirty years ago. The Jijis’ grandchildren also design the bottle labels. After the harvest, Latif takes the grapes inside to his basement wine cellar where he turns them into juice. The juice is then stored it in a one-of-a-kind, homemade refrigerator where it ferments until it becomes wine. The whole process takes about a year.
The name Chateau Latif, which Vera came up with, is a play on her husband’s name and the name of the famously expensive french wines, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Latif’s Niagara grapes, which are native to New York, produce a dry white wine which he says always has a fruity flavor. Unlike the vineyards of Italy, California and France, where grapes are grown in endless rows of vines, all of Latif’s wine comes from the one vine he planted in 1977. Unfortunately, for those of us not in the Jijis’ inner circle, Chateau Latif is not for sale. Latif makes the wine for fun and distributes it among his family and friends, making his vineyard not only rare, but also very exclusive.