There are plenty of serious restaurants and concert venues out there, but finding both under one roof is unusual. Throw a working urban winery into the mix and you’ve got something truly groundbreaking. City Winery has married this trio of concepts to create a successful hybrid that’s been making waves in both the culinary and music scenes since its debut in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood in 2008.
Founder and CEO Michael Dorf—a music lover who launched New York City concert venue the Knitting Factory in 1987—dreamed up City Winery in 2006 and says the idea follows the arc of his own life. “I had done the music thing and started a beer joint with some spirits,” he explains. “As I matured and my knees started to ache, I wanted to go to a sit-down place that served wine in glasses and had quality music.” The audiences for the big-name acts at City Winery like to sit, eat and drink in a comfortable environment, Dorf adds. “They prefer an intimate setting, and that’s what we offer.” According to COO Amanda Miller-Burg, City Winery’s patrons tend to fall into the 35-plus age bracket, but its target demographic is “anyone who loves what we’re offering.”
City Winery now has three additional units: one in Chicago that debuted in 2012; one in Nashville, Tennessee, that launched in 2014; and one in Atlanta that opened earlier this year. The company employs over 700 people. Each space features a 350-seat concert venue, a roughly 150-seat restaurant, private dining rooms and a winery. The complexes range in size from 20,000 square feet in New York City to 30,000 square feet in Nashville. Each location welcomes 400 to 600 guests on an average Saturday night. Beverage sales account for 60 percent of City Winery’s revenue, with food making up the remaining 40 percent. Concert ticket sales aren’t included in City Winery’s margins, as those revenues go to the musical acts.
Dorf is making plans for rapid expansion. He’ll unveil City Winery in Boston in October, and he’s looking at Toronto, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., as well. He believes there are at least 20 U.S. cities that could support the concept.
Urban Wine Country
“At first, people asked if we were operating a fake winery,” says Dorf, noting the improbability of a fully functioning winery in a major metro area. “When they realized we were purchasing grapes from world-class vineyards and using state-of-the-art winemaking equipment, they saw that, in fact, we’re taking the concept very seriously.”
City Winery works with around 15 vineyards, sourcing the majority of its fruit from U.S. estates such as Alder Springs Vineyard in California’s Mendocino County, Beckstoffer Vineyards in Napa Valley, and Hyland Estates in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The company also looks further afield to such producers as Catena Vineyards in Argentina. “As a winemaker, it’s incredibly exciting to meet with the growers, access all of this high-end product and create something really special,” says chief winemaker David Lecomte, a Rhône Valley native.
The company employs various fermentation methods and uses both stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels—many of which are displayed at the venues—to create 20 to 25 wines served by the glass on-site. City Winery also produces eight bottled wines a year which customers can consume on-premise or purchase to take home. Outside of its venues, City Winery’s wine is available at a small number of retail stores, at local music festivals and on the company’s website. The New York City location produces the most wine at 9,000 cases a year, followed by Chicago at 7,000 cases.
Most wines retail for $18 to $28 a 750-ml. bottle. “We need to be competitive in each of our cities, so retail pricing depends upon individual markets,” Lecomte explains. In New York City, the house-made Spring St. Pinot Noir ($25 a 750-ml. bottle) is a top-seller, while in Chicago, Morgan Station Sauvignon Blanc ($18) has emerged as a local favorite.
On-site, freshly made wine is stored in stainless steel kegs and tapped-to-order ($10 to $14 a glass; $10 to $39 a 500-ml. carafe; $38 to $65 a 750-ml. bottle). A nod to the company’s commitment to the environment, the tap system uses neutral argon gas that eliminates the need for a bottle, cork, label or cardboard case. Beyond City Winery’s proprietary offerings, the wine menu also features over 500 selections from all over the world, earning the company a “Best of Award of Excellence” in 2010 from Market Watch sister publication Wine Spectator.
Daily winery tours provide guests with a behind-the-scenes view of the winemaking process, followed by a tasting flight and snacks (cost varies by location). The company has also created “VinoFile” wine club programs ($75 to $385 a year), which offer biannual or quarterly home deliveries of City Winery wines, along with perks and loyalty rewards such as advance concert ticket sales, free wine or dessert, and free concert tickets. In addition, City Winery offers monthly winemaking classes and wine school sessions ($60 each). “We’re trying to show how much we value wine and encourage customers to do the same,” Dorf says.
Wine And Dine
Fine wine calls for food to match, and national director of kitchen development Andres Barrera and his team have designed City Winery’s menu with that in mind. “When I taste our wines, I’m looking to create flavors that will either complement or contrast,” Barrera says. “For the pairings to succeed, they need to connect—almost like a dance.”
Barrera notes that Italian, French, Spanish and Middle Eastern cultures have been pairing simple, wholesome food with wine for centuries, and City Winery taps into that Mediterranean attitude. Offerings include perennial customer favorites like a margherita flatbread topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella, seasoned San Marzano tomatoes, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and ripped basil leaves ($16 at the New York location); Italian burrata with marinated tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, basil, sea salt and toasted bread ($15 in Chicago); and crispy risotto balls with wild mushrooms, fresh sage and Gouda cream sauce ($12 in Chicago).
Though each location’s menus have items in common, regional specialties and specific ingredients vary by city, season and chef. “We’ve always wanted the consistency of a core menu—something our guests could look forward to if they were to visit different locations—but we also wanted each menu to have its own identity and to reflect the feel or vibe of that particular city,” Barrera explains. Concertgoers can also order from the full food menu—something Barrera takes pride in. “This is a testament to our kitchen’s abilities and professionalism,” he says.
On Sundays, City Winery’s New York City location hosts Klezmer Brunch—a combination of live music and food that befits the venue’s vibe and reflects Dorf’s strong ties to the Jewish community. A klezmer ensemble takes the stage as guests dine on dishes like shakshuka—eggs poached in tomato sauce with merguez sausage and chilis ($14). For brunch in Nashville, diners can enjoy shrimp and buttermilk grits with poached farm eggs and tasso gravy ($15). City Winery also regularly hosts wine dinners in partnership with vineyards, wineries and winemakers.
All About The Experience
“This experience of amazing musicians playing for people who are drinking wine that was made right there with genuine food—no one else is delivering that,” Miller-Burg says. “In an urban environment, it’s a pretty unusual opportunity.” City Winery shows scheduled for May included Moody Blues vocalist, lead guitarist and composer Justin Hayward in New York City (tickets are $55 to $75); jazz vocalist Kurt Elling ($36 to $48) in Chicago; singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris ($75 to $125) in Nashville; and gospel legend Mavis Staples ($82 to $96) in Atlanta.
Lecomte says City Winery’s core trifecta of offerings fuels its success. “If we were only a winery, we wouldn’t work out,” he says. “The music, the winemaking and the food put together allow us to keep operating at this level.” Dorf agrees. “Our attention is on the experience as a whole—not just the food, drink or concert,” he says. “We’ve simply built a better mousetrap.”