As the crowd settled in for a Steve Earle concert at City Winery one night last month, Michael Dorf, the club’s founder, was busy hunting for candles.
The little glass votive holders, usually placed at each table with a notice for “quiet during the show,” were missing. Mr. Dorf made a quick sweep through the 21,000-square-foot downtown space in Manhattan, passing by two private parties and the basement room where custom vintages like Sohovignon Blanc age in oak casks. But no luck. So between sips of Vosne-Romanée pinot noir ($174 a bottle), he pulled out his iPhone and fired off a note to the house manager.
“We shush more than any venue I know,” Mr. Dorf explained, with a laugh.
The candles (and the shushing) are a small part of City Winery’s plan to lure the people ignored by the youth-obsessed music industry: fans over 40 who will pay extra for a classy meal and a room quiet enough to hear the plucking of a guitar string. Founded five years ago, City Winery is now an established stop on the singer-songwriter touring circuit and expanding rapidly. A Chicago branch opened in 2012, and another will arrive on April 10 in Napa, Calif., the heart of the American wine industry. Nashville is next, in September, and ultimately Mr. Dorf envisions a House of Blues-like network of 30 to 40 clubs.
“This is a really ripe business model that could work in cosmopolitan markets around the globe,” Mr. Dorf said. “The entertainment world has recognized that you need to put on a good show, but you also have to put in good accouterments to enhance the experience. We’re just doing that at the ultimate level.”
With its mellow lighting, civilized set times and 40-page wine list, City Winery seems a world away from Mr. Dorf’s last club, the Knitting Factory, which he co-founded in 1987 in a cramped Lower East Side storefront. Through hustle and marketing genius, it earned a global reputation as a hub of avant-garde cool with downtown stars like John Zorn, Sonic Youth and Lou Reed. And with dot-com-era ambitions of turning itself into a sprawling multimedia empire, it also grew a little too fast for its own good, leading to Mr. Dorf’s departure in 2003.
Now, energetic as ever at age 51, Mr. Dorf said that City Winery reflected his own changing tastes as he had children and grew tired of standing around in a bar till the wee hours to enjoy a concert.
That view is shared by many of his customers. At a Cowboy Junkies show a few nights after Mr. Earle played, Christina Iwasko, 48, and Lauren Hirschbach, 36, who work together at a cosmetics company in Midtown Manhattan, nibbled at appetizers and drank Turner-Pageot syrah ($49) on what they said was a monthly outing there.
“I love the fact that you get to sit here and enjoy these great wines, and the age group is nice,” Ms. Iwasko said. “I feel like I’m going to a place that’s not super-super young.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that selling wine and steaks is a more lucrative business than running an avant-garde rock club. Last year, City Winery in New York, where most shows sell out, made $1 million for its investors. “We made more net profit in the first year of City Winery than I made at the Knit the entire time I was there,” Mr. Dorf said.
Mr. Dorf has had his sights on expansion from the beginning. He chose the generic name City Winery to apply anywhere and wants to maintain a uniformity of brand. Each space will seat 300 to 400 people — small enough to be intimate, big enough for a major dining operation — and, eventually, the network will be able to offer itself to artists for mini-tours.
For anyone who remembers Mr. Dorf’s shaky later years at the Knitting Factory, his growth plans may look risky. In the late 1990s, the company took on more than $5 million in venture capital funding and went on a vertiginous expansion, with a record label, a sponsorship-driven festival business and a huge web presence.
A Los Angeles Factory was built, with cost overruns that still make Mr. Dorf wince. But plans for others in Berlin, Paris and Tokyo were scrapped as the Internet bubble burst and the terrorist attacks of 2001 kept the New York club — which had moved to a three-level complex in TriBeCa in 1994 — closed for weeks.
“The problem with what we were doing at the Knit is that we were expanding in a bunch of different directions at the same time,” Mr. Dorf said. “There was some heady, absurd thinking with what we were doing in the dot-com world. It was unsustainable.”
Mr. Dorf eventually sold his interest in the Knitting Factory, which in 2009 closed the Los Angeles space and moved its New York location to Brooklyn. Since Mr. Dorf left, the company has also put its name on performance spaces in much less glamorous locations: Boise, Idaho; Spokane, Wash.; and Reno, Nev.
Peter Shapiro, who opened Brooklyn Bowl around the same time as City Winery and is now expanding far beyond New York, said that both he and Mr. Dorf saw a need in the market for a music venue that offered “more than just a stage facing a bar,” and they took the necessary risk.
“We both stayed independent and both built better widgets,” he added. “People respond to these venues because they’re multisensory.”
In his Knitting Factory days, Mr. Dorf used to talk about the relative stability of “beer and mortar” businesses, and now he says that City Winery is focused entirely on that goal — no venture capital, no content plays, no elaborate e-commerce plans. The clubs are run with a combination of tried-and-true service wisdom (Danny Meyer’s book “Setting the Table” is required reading by all staff) and tech-driven efficiency. Email marketing allows it to avoid traditional advertising, and a partnership with the public radio station WFUV-FM gets its name mentioned constantly.
City Winery’s original business model has also shifted. Mr. Dorf had planned to market the winemaking business to the city’s financial elite, letting patrons make a barrel of their own wine for up to $10,000. But right as the first grapes arrived, in September 2008, the economy collapsed, and his Wall Street client base vanished.
“I used to say we’re selling barrels to bankers,” Mr. Dorf said. “That all went away.” The first show was the soul singer Joan Osborne on Dec. 31, 2008, and since then its bookings have included Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Natalie Cole and even Prince — acts with solid, grown-up followings.
Backstage before his show, Mr. Earle endorsed Mr. Dorf’s reputation among musicians. Strumming a mandolin, he looked up at posters on the wall of tribute concerts that Mr. Dorf has organized over the years; the next, with Judy Collins, Allen Toussaint, Bob Mould and others playingPaul Simon’s songs, is at Carnegie Hall on March 31.
“This is part of an entity that has always been about music, going back to the Knitting Factory,” Mr. Earle said. “The artists will always be taken care of in a situation like that.”
For Mr. Dorf, the thrill of winemaking — and of meeting the rock stars of the grape — seems to entice him just as much as putting on music. A few days before Mr. Earle’s show, Mr. Dorf was in Napa, overseeing construction and having dinner with Margrit Mondavi, the widow of the Napa wine pioneer Robert Mondavi, which he described with fanboy delight.
“To connect to the royalty that helped create the American wine industry is so exhilarating,” Mr. Dorf said.
“I put that on the same plane as having had a relationship with Lou Reed or John Zorn,” he added. “It’s so cool.”