City Winery

Upscale urban venues for music-loving oenophiles coast to coast
Written by: 
Jeanee Dudley
Produced by: 
Sean Barr

In 2008, Michael Dorf opened a unique venue on Varick Street in lower Manhattan. After 20 years of running The Knitting Factory, one of New York’s most beloved music venues, Dorf was ready to explore new opportunities. Guided by his passion for quality wine and music, he combined two distinct areas of expertise to open City Winery, an urban winery-meets-music venue.

The business took off and over the last seven years, Dorf and his colleagues have amassed a strong following. By integrating high-quality and reasonably priced wines with rock ‘n’ roll, City Winery attracts a mature demographic in its three existing locations. Dorf expanded his music and wine concept to open venues in Chicago, Napa, California, and Nashville, Tennessee, with venues opening in Atlanta and Boston in 2016 and even more expansions planned for 2017.

In good spirits

“There is an overlapping demographic in my mind between the sophisticated consumer of music — those who like vintage rock ‘n’ roll and a classy type of shows — with those who would be interested in a wine product and environment,” explains Dorf. “So our setup is more than a typical music venue or entertainment complex with beer and spirits. City Winery is more centrally focused around wine.”

Each location has a modern aesthetic that comes with the territory of city living with the rustic charm of a fully functional winery. These expertly crafted interiors suggest luxury while incorporating the brand’s premier product: wine. “We have a venue where we have wrapped the experience in a winery,” Dorf elaborates. “You walk into the smell of fermenting fruit, surrounded by oak barrels and winemaking equipment.”

The environment, tied in with some of the country’s best touring acts, is a self-contained marketing strategy. “Our goal in combining these aspects is to bring the audience to the product and it has obviously worked out well,” Dorf explains. “We see larger trends supporting the model: older adults are drinking more wine in this country — over the last 10 years, wine has increased in per capita consumption tremendously. People are also more concerned with where their food comes from. Here, they can see the grapes arrive. We process all in one location, which is very in-line with trends in our society.”

Live music included

On the music side of the equation, Dorf says that while wine sales have gone up, sales of recorded music have gone down. “Music has become a commodity,” he explains. “In 1999 to 2009, sales went from 900 million to 150 million units. That’s a huge drop. Meanwhile, artists still need to earn a living.”

Dorf’s unique venues provide space for that. Older adults have more expendable income for music and are interested in seeing big name acts in intimate spaces. City Winery hosts many popular midtier performers, including the likes of Suzanne Vega, members of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Macy Gray, Steve Earle and Vanessa Carlton, among others.

As revenue streams through recorded music decrease, The City Winery serves as an important venue for artists. “The audience loves a more intimate environment versus a large theater,” Dorf notes. “And artists need a place to work. We’ve combined this space for music with the knowledge that these acts’ audience prefers wine over spirits. It’s a classy environment and a cross point between two things that work well in our favor.”

Growing heavy for the vintage

As City Winery sees continued success with its unusual business model, the company is examining a number of opportunities both in existing cities and new ones across the U.S. The team most recently opened its Nashville location in 2014 and saw its first harvest and grape crush in fall 2015. Currently under construction, an Atlanta location is opening up in March 2016. Meanwhile in the company’s home city of New York, a restaurant location at Pier 26 is shaping up — also for a spring 2016 opening.

“We’re very lucky in that we have 30 vineyards under contract and we have terrific relationships with them,” says Dorf. “We buy some of the prominent and premium grapes in this country from California, Oregon and Washington. Those 30 contracts are our partners and the source of what we’re doing. As we expand and we’re looking to buy more from our partners, they’re happy and we’re becoming a more important customer.”

These relationships allow City Winery to produce quality wines sold on tap by the glass at its venues throughout the country. As the business grows, so does its capacity for quality wine. Each location has typically 15 to 18 varieties on tap at any given time. “Our wine is made where it’s sold, so it’s fresh and reasonably priced,” says Dorf. “At the same time, this is a very green, environmentally sensitive way to serve wine.”

Locally made, high-quality wine will remain the central component to the enterprise as it grows. In its current locations and new spaces over the coming years, City Winery will maintain a winning combination of good tunes and quality libations, packed under one roof.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Pat La Freida Meat