When you picture a music venue, you probably imagine a dark room with a well-used stage filled with a band, equipment and too many people crammed into the space. And when you picture a winery, you likely picture rolling fields filled with row upon row of grapevines. Perhaps you imagine yourself quietly sipping different varietals in the cellars.
Michael Dorf, CEO of City Winery, had an altogether different vision. He feels fine wine is best enjoyed when it's paired with great music and atmosphere set in an urban environment. That's the idea behind City Winery.
City Winery is an innovative urban winery that also features an intimate music venue and dining experience. At first glance, an urban winery, already a break with the traditionally rural vineyards of years past, doesn't immediately conjure images of a music venue. But Dorf saw the two as a natural fit. We spoke to him about how he made that happen.
In City Winery's locations, you'll find a music venue that seats about 350 people, an adjacent dining room, smaller private rooms for rent, and a wine production facility surrounding it all. Whether it's a company event, a charity fundraiser, a dinner party or just a night out on the town, City Winery aims to deliver a comprehensive experience to an audience with a highly developed taste for culture – and wine, of course.
"We are set up for a sophisticated evening surrounded by a working winery," said Dorf. "We're a place where this craft beverage is being produced, and that authenticity lends to the overall atmosphere and differentiates us from everyone else."
City Winery maintains eight locations today, with venues in New York City, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta and Boston. Next year, the company will open a location in Philadelphia as well as a location for weekend retreats in Hudson Valley.
Bringing together winemaking and music
Blending is natural when it comes to wine, but sometimes less so in business. For Dorf, however, uniting the two seemingly unrelated concepts under one roof was obvious.
Music has been an integral part of Dorf's career. Prior to opening City Winery, Dorf ran a music club and record label called The Knitting Factory. However, as record sales slumped with the onset of the digital era, Dorf sold his interest in the company by 2003. The following year, he made his first barrel of wine in California. That experience was so positive he began thinking about bringing a winery to New York City, and the seed of City Winery was planted. With the old axiom, "it's easy to make good wine, it's hard to sell it" in mind, Dorf began devising how to draw an audience into his planned urban winery.
"I wanted to be smart and creative about how to bring an audience into a space to drink the wine," he said, "so I kind of went back to my roots, and that was to put on a show."
Knowing that live shows drive concession sales, Dorf realized that a music venue – particularly a high-end, intimate music venue that caters to a sophisticated crowd – would be the perfect draw for an audience to sample and purchase his wine.
And the big names City Winery has booked certainly don't disappoint. From the likes of Prince to Greg Allman, City Winery has attracted internationally known acts. City Winery has also hosted Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Joan Armatrading.
While the venue's bread and butter is the singer/songwriter genre, Dorf said soulful music and R&B is also popular, and City Winery paired live music and a film series by Spike Lee for an extra level of creativity.
Building on the idea
While City Winery's core business is its music venue and urban winery, Dorf continued to grow and innovate over the years. City Winery offers classes from basic winemaking lessons to blending sessions that teach visitors about the components that go into a blended wine. It also offers in-depth courses, like its barrel making program, where guests participate in an eight-month to two-year process of making their own barrel – which contains about 270 bottles of wine – and custom-labeled bottles to enjoy at home when it's done.
"You can get as involved as you'd like," Dorf said. "Or if the winemaking process is not as interesting, you can just come here, drink wine, enjoy a good show and a good meal, and try our wine."
The success of City Winery is proof positive that thinking outside the box and innovating on existing ideas is a great way to build a successful business. For Dorf, it meant combining the things he already knew and loved and using that passion and knowledge to drive his business's success. There's a lesson to be learned for entrepreneurs: Do what you love, do what you know and don't be afraid to get creative to build something new.