Right Proper Brewer Nathan Zeender Is Building a Mobile Winery

The self-sustained, solar-powered operation will produce "low-intervention" wines and ciders

Nathan Zeender holds up a model of his mobile winery, Hibernaculum.

Right Proper head brewer Nathan Zeender has built a name for himself making funky ferments and breaking the mold of traditional beer styles at the DC-based brewery. Now, he’s looking to try his hand at cider and wine—but he’s not going about it the traditional way. Zeender is getting ready to launch a totally self-sustained, solar-powered, mobile winery called Hibernaculum.

“I’m 41 now, but my 20s were sort of a love affair with wine,” Zeender says. “But then for the last few years, I’ve thought I really wanted to try wine-making.”

Initially, he considered creating a private label at an existing winery (like many restaurants do). But rather than have a winery produce for him, Zeender wanted his hands in every step of the process. “The more I thought about it, I wanted to operate completely independently, so I was like, ‘Can I do an arrangement where I have all my own equipment?'”

Zeender had seen his brother, who’s a chef in Martha’s Vineyard, build a professional kitchen inside an old Airstream trailer. Why not create a winery that was similarly compact and sustainable?

A model of the mobile winery.

Zeender is using an old shipping container as the frame of his mobile winery. Inside there will be three 550-gallon stainless steel fermentation tanks. Solar panels that store energy in a battery bank will make the production completely self-sustained. The solar power will mostly be used to prevent the wine from reaching extreme temperatures in the heat of summer or during freezing winters. Zeender’s friend Bret Stevenson is bringing the mechanical skills to help build it.

This shipping container will soon have a winery inside. Photo by Nathan Zeender.

The whole operation can be hoisted or craned onto a rollback truck and transported to other locations. To start, the winery/cidery will reside at Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Frederick County, Maryland for at least one season, if not more. Zeender’s plan, though, is to source grapes from vineyards around Maryland and Virginia. He’s hoping to have the operation ready to go by harvest time this fall.

Zeender calls the wines and ciders he’ll be making “low-intervention,” meaning they’ll be created with native yeast fermentation and no added sulfites, enzymes, additives, or filtration. He’s interested in long-skin-contact white wines (like orange or amber wines that are left in contact with the grapes’ skins and seeds for an extended period of time), as well as some red wines. He’d also like to experiment with aromatized wines, like vermouth.

Zeender doesn’t expect wines and ciders to be much of a leap from the beers he’s produced for years. “We already brew a lot of beers that have more in common with natural white wines flavor-wise than traditional beer,” he says. “I have a lot of confidence in the time that I put in with fermentation.”

Given the compact setup, Zeender expects a relatively small output—hundreds of cases rather than thousands. Distribution details are still in the works, but the wines and ciders may be available through a membership club or at select restaurants and retailers.

Hibernaculum—whose name refers to a shelter for hibernating animals, like a bear’s den or a bat cave—is just a side project for now. “I’m thinking about this as a completely seasonal and very low-intensity project,” Zeender explains. He’s not planning to bring in a salary from it, and he’ll continue his job as head brewer at Right Proper.

In many ways, he considers the winery something of an art project instead. “I think of any form of fermentation as a culinary art,” Zeender says. Plus, he’s looking to create some artsy bottle labels and decorate the shipping container in a mural.

Zeender is launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the project. He’s hoping to raise $20,000.

Correction: This story initially stated that Zeender would source apples from Distillery Lane Ciderworks. However, he is not currently planning to use their fruit, just operate from their site. 

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.