On an Upper East Side rooftop in Manhattan, peeking out from lush grapevines heavy with grapes, is Latif Jiji, a 91-year-old retired engineering professor and vintner. Chateau Latif, which started in 1977, is the city’s only vineyard and winery.
Jiji’s wife came up with the clever name—a play on Chateau Lafite, a famous Rothschild winery in France.
“People go to France, there are many chateaus; they come to Manhattan, there’s only one,” Jiji said.
What makes the winery even more exclusive is that Jiji doesn’t sell his bottles of Chateau Latif, but gives them away to friends and family.
The family-run winery has its annual harvest in late August or early September, and yields on average 20 to 25 gallons, or 100 to 125 bottles, of “fruity and not very sweet” white wine, according to Jiji. The labels on the bottles of Chateau Latif are each handpainted in watercolor, with a design that looks similar to the front of his home.
In 1977, Jiji planted in his backyard a Niagara grapevine bought from his local nursery. In 1984, the family had its first harvest, which yielded about nine bottles of wine. The at-first unassuming grapevine grew from the middle of Jiji’s backyard into a colossal vine that climbs its way up his four-story brownstone and spreads across his rooftop, spanning a little over 100 feet.
“It’s not hard work,” Jiji said, on maintaining his vineyard. “It’s just watching something grow. It doesn’t get more beautiful than that.”
Jiji, an Iraqi Jew, got the idea to make wine from his father, who made wine when he was a boy in Basra, Iraq.
“It’s really one of the wines that I enjoyed, and I still can taste it,” he said.
It was never his intention, however, to be a serious winemaker—and he doesn’t consider himself one. Jiji spent 60 years as an engineering professor.
About 25 of Jiji’s family and friends will soon come over to harvest the grapes and help with the wine-making process, all in one day. Then the hardworking volunteers will be rewarded with wine from previous years and a warm meal.
The experience is something that Jiji’s loved ones can count on year after year, in a bustling city that changes, seemingly, in the blink of an eye.
“When I first started this trellis here, there weren’t many tall buildings,” he said. “Look at that, that was new. And this is the latest one. And it’s not finished yet. Every year, there is a new building rising up.”