I started City Winery in 2008. I had started earlier a club in NYC in 1987 called The Knitting Factory which grew into a large entertainment company. In 2002, I sold my interests and in 2004 made a barrel of wine in California. I caught the bug. Always loved drinking wine as a fan, but now, wanted to get deeper in the creation of this consumable art form. As they say in winemaking, it is easy to make good wine, it is harder to sell it. I combined my interests and thought, if I programmed great music in a sit-down environment, that a more sophisticated audience will enjoy a glass of wine served in Reidel perhaps more than other beverages. I was right, about 70% of our beverage sales are wine, and we make more than half of what we sell to our customers.
I love that we are really authentic. We source great grapes from about 30 vineyards in California, Oregon, and some from Washington, upstate NY, and even parts of Georgia for our Atlanta facility. I love how the concept is working in cosmopolitan markets around the country, showing that there are sophisticated audiences, young and old, in many great cities everywhere. I love how we have great relationships with the artists who work with us, many enjoying their experience “working” at City Winery more than any other venues on the circuit. That is in particular very fulfilling these days, to know that the “medium” we have created is really working for the precious musicians making a living using our stages.
Besides loosing more hair, what I love has been the discovery of winemakers who are huge music fans, chefs who are really closet rock and rollers, and the musicians who hold the chefs and winemakers in the utmost celebrity. There is such mutual respect and bringing them together has been most interesting.
Background, resume, and academic history are NOT the most important. It is the person, are they passionate about what they want to do? Do they enjoy their work so much, that the lines between work and play are very gray? In fact, in our business, the lines are very gray and hopefully you want to be here, want to be seeing a concert, want to be learning about wine, and want to be hanging with other folks who enjoy both. There is no other restaurant or culinary option to actually make wine, so for someone who wants to be in hospitality, but go deeper into wine, we are the place. If you happen to also be in the place where your favorite singer is also hanging out, we are your place. Those are rare and cool unique points that other places are more challenged to work for. We might not have the free soda machine in the office next to the yoga suite near the HR lounge, but we have other perks that make our place special. We look for people who want our culture. We think it is cool and so do 750 other current employees.
I’m into hiking and mountaineering. I’m a very good ping pong player, I am embarrassed to say, I do like golf. I would say, the one fact, not perhaps that public is I used to do some oil painting. I love great art and did a few pieces in college. There was a moment when I was 22 years old, hanging out in Europe, sitting in cafes pondering life, that I wondered if I should do something less businessney and more personal and arty, and pursue abstract painting. You know, drink wine in a small studio in Amsterdam or Barcelona and paint. I don’t know if I have any real talent, but I know what I like. So, I did some work, more private. The first name for The Knitting Factory that came from sitting in cafe’s was something called “Expressoism” which turned into several other names before it morphed into The Knitting Factory.
ON SALE NEXT WEEK!
Wasabassco Burlesque: Summer In The City Winery | 8.5
Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders | 9.30, 10.28, 11.26
An Intimate Night with Allen Stone: My Favorite Songs, Favorite Stories (Early & Late Shows) |10.14
Asleep At The Wheel | 10.18
Blind Boy Paxton w/ Dave & Phil Alvin w/ The Guilty Ones | 8.31
Everyone at City Winery already knew this, but now a new study has shown that attending a live music performance can reduce a person’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Check out the full story in The Telegraph.
De-stress at CWNYC this week with David Grisman, The Mountain Goats, 10,000 Maniacs, Buster Poindexter, Griffin House and more!
If you are unable to attend one of the upcoming David Bowie tribute concerts presented by City Winery founder & CEO Michael Dorf on 3/31 and 4/1, you don’t have to miss out! As The Guardian just reported, the shows will be streamed live, worldwide, via Skype!
The star-studded events will feature stars such as, Debbie Harry, Michael Stipe, The Roots, Cyndi Lauper, Esperanza Spalding, The Polyphonic Spree, Mumford & Sons and more, at the acclaimed NYC’s venues Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall. City Winery is honored to be hosting after-parties for both shows, of which 100% of net profits will be donated to charity.
For more info., check out www.MusicOf.org!
Diners visiting Manhattan’s City Winery get transported to a time and place in which grape vines line rolling fields and the day comes to an end with a sun-kissed adieu. While it’s not quite Napa Valley, owner Michael Dorf has gone to painstaking lengths to create a little bit of wine country amidst sprawling high-rise buildings, stop-and-go traffic and busy sidewalks.
City Winery locations can now be found in New York, Chicago, Nashville, and Napa, with each featuring a design that brings the romance of wine and music to life. Dorf plans to bring City Winery to Atlanta and Boston next.
While dinner guests eat from a smattering of globally influenced dishes… Read More at RDDMAG.COM
It is almost impossible to believe that we’ve reached the end of 2015 already—it feels like just yesterday we were ringing in the new year! This year was a huge for City Winery, full of extraordinary performances, unforgettable celebrations, and of course amazing food and wine. To look back at all of these amazing events, we’ve compiled a list of just a few of our favorite moments from 2015.
We want to give a special thank you to the City Winery staff, programming team, and event planners for making this year spectacular, and of course our wonderful patrons for making this all possible. Have a great new year, we look forward to seeing you in 2016!
La Paulée Off Grid Wine Tasting & Seminar (2/24)
The official La Paulée festival is one of the biggest Burgundy festivals in the world, and City
Winery had the privilege of hosting their off-grid tasting this February! La Paulée has become a grand gala attended by Meursault growers and producers along with other wine connoisseurs, and Daniel Johnnes, the Wine Director of Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group, produces the New York festival. It is a privilege to attend and reservations are mostly made a year in advance, so for City Winery to be included in the festival is a huge honor! We also worked with La Fete du Champagne in November, providing décor and barrels for their tasting.
Farm Aid VIP Reception and Dinner (5/19)
City Winery had the honor of partnering with Farm Aid this spring for an amazing private gala! Norah Jones gave an incredible solo performance, and City Winery provided top-of-the-line service for this great organization. Guests who attended also enjoyed a City Winery wine tasting and seated dinner. Farm Aid is a non-profit organization that has worked to support independent family farms for the past 30 years, and more recently took on the task of supporting the labeling of GMO produce.
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell (5/21)
After years of collaboration, singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris and country star Rodney Crowell have developed an undeniable musical chemistry, captivating our audience last spring. The duo wowed fans with songs from their Grammy-Award winning album Old Yellow Moon, as well as tracks from their most recent project, The Traveling Kind. We hope to see them continue their partnership and visit us again very soon!
Stephen Stills (7/7)
As one of the most prolific songwriters and musicians alive today, we were extremely grateful to host Stephen Stills in our New York City venue – the only City Winery he had not yet played! The set list featured a wealth of material from throughout his extensive musical career, touching on his work with Buffalo Springfield, CSN(Y), and Manassas; as well as his own solo work. If you haven’t had a chance to see him lately, take our word—there is no doubt that Stills can still send a song flying.
Indigo Girls (7/23)
Last July, City Winery was presented with the opportunity to host the Indigo Girls’ album release show for their latest record, One Lost Day, in partnership with one of our favorite radio stations, WFUV. With two packed shows, the band quickly established their groove, and were often joined by the singing and clapping audience. As one of the smallest venues featured on their short tour, City Winery was very fortunate to give fans a chance to experience material both new and old in a very personal, intimate setting.
Watkins Family Hour (7/28-7/30)
The Watkins siblings, Sean and Sara, created a home away from home when they took their show on the road for the first time with Watkins Family Hour. The group perfected covers of beloved bluegrass, folk, country, and rock tracks with the help of their friends Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench, Don Heffington, Sebastian Steinberg, and other special guests such as Ashley Monroe, Shawn Colvin and Michael Daves. Sara, Sean, and company successfully harnessed the ability to touch their audience in a profound way through their music, and we were honored to be featured as one of the few venues they played on this small tour.
John McCauley (9/7 & 9/8)
John McCauley left behind packed, sweaty crowds and the familiar full band backing to join us in all four City Winery rooms this year. Those who are fans of Deer Tick were captivated by the frontman’s solo work but were also treated to songs from the band’s discography as John indulged the crowd in hits drawn from several of the group’s albums. We hope that this four city tour becomes a City Winey tradition for years to come!
Habitat for Humanity Women’s Build (9/25)
City Winery hosted a memorable fall fundraiser for Habitat’s Women’s Build. This chapter of the charity involves women from all paths in life in their building process, teaching them construction skills and encompassing them in the Habitat for Humanity mission. As a large format cocktail party, this event was an exciting beginning to what hopes to be a continuing partnership! It was truly inspiring and touching to hear some of the speeches and stories from women whose lives had been forever improved by the homes that Habitat has provided for them over the years.
John Hammond & G. Love (9/28)
As one of City Winery’s favorites, John Hammond has rocked our stage many times over the years with his unique blend of rock and blues. Packing the house on a Monday night this past September was no challenge for the Grammy winner and his special guest G. Love of G. Love & Special Sauce, who considers John one of his greatest mentors. After such an amazing performance, we look forward to revisiting this combination again down the line.
Joan Armatrading (9/29-10/1)
It was an honor to have three-time Grammy Award nominee Joan Armatrading grace our stage this past September. With her unique contralto vocal range, she delivered three rare and exceptional solo performances, bringing new, exciting energy each night. Known for her deeply passionate lyrics, Joan displayed her powerful knack for filling the room with intense emotion, which proved to be a treat for all who were in attendance each evening.
The Ann Wilson Thing (10/7)
This fall we were lucky enough to book one of rocks most revered female vocalists, Heart front woman Ann Wilson. We were honored that she made City Winery a part of her mini tour, fittingly called The Ann Wilson Thing. Ann performed two sold out shows in one night, featuring songs from her new EP, simply called #1, to an extraordinarily enthusiastic audience. We cannot wait to have her back again!
Dennis Goodman’s 60th Birthday Party (10/18)
City Winery New York hosted its largest party ever this October. It was an honor to work with the reputable Colin Cowie and his team of event planner professionals. Highlights of the party included a magician, photo booths, Grinder Girl, an incredible cocktail hour and seated dinner from our executive chef, Chef Jeanty. Idan Raichel also gave a mind blowing performance with a full band. The Winery has never looked so fabulous, and each of the evening’s 285 guests departed with a bottle of City Winery custom label wine to commemorate the event!
Gregg Allman (11/1, 2, 4-6)
After many years of working toward this booking, our much-anticipated five-night run with the Gregg Allman Band proved to be a tremendous success and well worth the wait. Each night featured a unique set list and opener, allowing a chance for some of City Winery’s favorite up-and-coming artists to shine. For many fans that attended the Allman Brothers yearly residency at the Beacon Theater, the chance to see Gregg and company in a room with one-tenth the capacity was an incredible experience. We anticipate that 2017 will play host to more surprises for fans of Georgia’s finest.
Somms & Sliders at The Bowery Hotel (11/10)
City Winery was honored to participate in the first ever Napa Valley Somms & Sliders event, which showcased 18 leading wineries from Napa Valley teaming up with some of the most esteemed restaurants in Manhattan. Guests have the opportunity to try 11 different wine and burger pairings from participating eateries, as well as over 40 different varieties that hail from the region. Our own Chef Jeanty and talented wine director Tali Dalbaha were on hand to present a special lamb burger paired with a glass of our own NYC Cab.
Every Mother Counts Wine Tasting at The Bowery Hotel (11/12)
In support of Every Mother Counts, a foundation dedicated to improving maternal health for all women, City Winery was on hand to provide food and wine at the charity’s second annual #LoveEMC event at the Bowery Hotel. The fundraiser was incredibly successful, raising over $100,000! We are so grateful to participate in such an important organization.
Southern Soul Assembly feat. J.J. Grey, Luther Dickinson, Marc Broussard, Anders Osborne (11/28)
JJ Grey, Luther Dickinson, Marc Broussard and Anders Osborne rounded out November by joining together to deliver an amazing night of songs and stories at City Winery. Each artist provided a unique take on his deep Southern roots, presenting a passionate, authentic, and deeply soulful homage to the rich legacy of Southern musical spirit.
CEO Michael Dorf recently spoke with Billboard about his start in the industry, his introduction to the world of wine, and where City Winery is headed next. Read the full Q&A by Andy Gensler below, and look for a version of it to appear in the Dec. 12 issue of the magazine.
The original copy of this interview can be found on Billboard‘s website.
City Winery CEO Michael Dorf on Expanding His $40 Million Business and Why Older Fans Just Want a Place to Sit
by Andy Gensler
Michael Dorf is the classic New York success story: music-loving Midwesterner arrives downtown in the 1980s; hops into an arts scene that includes Lou Reed, John Zorn, and Sonic Youth; opens a coffeehouse performance space; builds an international brand; walks away from it all; and starts over.
“I needed to think through what I’d like as a customer,” says Dorf, 53, a Milwaukee native who, after founding The Knitting Factory, went on to launch the tech-minded MacFest and Plug-In confabs and produce benefit shows at Carnegie Hall before starting his most lucrative music-business venture yet: City Winery.
Today, the married father of three heads up the chain of venue-restaurants (average capacity: 300) boasting a curated selection of live music and fine vintages, and whose flagship Tribeca location, which opened in 2008, is mere blocks away from Houston Street where Dorf first exercised his entrepreneurial spirit two decades earlier. With clubs in Chicago and Nashville, new venues in Atlanta and Boston planned for 2016 and two more major cities in the works (a Napa, Calif., location, ironically, is closing), Dorf employs some 550 employees and will take in an estimated $40 million in revenue in 2015.
How did you get from Wisconsin to New York City?
I always wanted to be in New York and started getting Swamp Thing, the band I was managing, gigs there. I guess I created a bit of that Steve Jobs’ “distortion reality field” that you could also call outright bull-shitting: I would get them gigs in New York and say, “these guys are the hottest thing in Madison.” And then come back to Madison and say, “the hometown band is really taking off in New York.” I moved there and got an apartment on 10th Street and the band basically moved in with me.
How did that turn into the Knitting Factory?
In 1986 I was getting close to having to come back to Milwaukee because the band was struggling and my plan to be a record mogul [Dorf ran Flaming Pie Records] wasn’t working out. So I borrowed money and took my Bar Mitzvah savings and gave up my apartment and rented the Avon office on Houston Street. My friend Louis Spitzer and I did rudimentary construction and he became my partner. It was going to be a gallery performance art space coffee shop called Expressoism. I envisioned a kind of Jack Kerouac thing that would have been what it was like to be in Paris or in New York during the Beatnik 1950s thing. Then we decided on naming it the Fire Escape, which a week before opening we decided was a really bad name.
You had a huge variety of shows at the Knitting Factory, what was your favorite?
Gosh, so many, but when we took over Estella’s Restaurant below the Knitting Factory Jon Zorn’s Naked City [with Bill Frisell, Fred Frith and Joey Baron and Wayne Horowitz] played. Their music was incredible, eclectic and very very energetic and had a strong rock sound. They did five shows when we opened up the downstairs space. He’d bring in charts, they’d rehearse all day and then they did like 20 songs. And the next day Zorn would bring in another 20 songs and he did that for five days. Each day was completely different and the insanity of Zorn and the masterful craftsman musicianship of those guys was unbelievable.
What prompted the move to Tribeca in 1994?
A couple of things: The ceiling [covered in sweaters with flame retardant spray] was one of many things we did by hand from the electrical work to the plumbing to the means of egress. It was great place, it had incredible history, but it was time to find a place that was bigger and safer and I wanted to expand to have a multi-room venue.
What were some of the endeavors you expanded into beyond daily bookings?
In 1995 I was really getting into technology and produced the first MacFest. We were starting to stream, but you couldn’t even call it streaming with only 14.8 modems. I convinced Bell Atlantic to give us money to start the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in ’96 and then Intel came in and outbid Mac. And the Knitting Factory label was growing like crazy and had an office in Amsterdam.
What prompted your split with the Knitting Factory?
Starting in about 1997 I wanted to expand all aspects of what we were doing and did three consecutive rounds of financing. I started to not call it music, but content and was getting caught up in the idea that the Internet was going to allow me to get our music and our brand in front of millions of people. Then the 2000 dotcom crash came and the implosion of the record business and then 9/11. 2002 was a very tough year and we had to let a ton of people go. By 2003 I had diluted myself out of a control position within the company and recognized that I didn’t want to be fighting with investors and feeling like i didn’t control my own destiny.
What lesson did you learn from that period?
There were so many but as a young entrepreneur, I got caught up in forgetting that technology is just a tool to ultimately accomplish a goal, to provide service to the customer and that’s my approach now.
What was your relationship like with Lou Reed?
He played at the old Knit and then we got into the wine thing together. We had this Jewish and wine connection.
Didn’t he do your Passover Seder events?
Lou probably came to five or six of my Passover seders. I have a picture of him at our last Passover Seder three or four months before he died. He read Exodus, but he read Bob Marley’s “Exodus.” In the picture he’s embracing me on stage and that means a lot to me, I feel really very lucky to have had a special relationship with him.
How did you get into wine despite hailing from the land of beer?
I’ve always had an interest in Wine. My Uncle Shelley nicknamed me Mr. Beaujolais because freshman year I came home with a bottle of beaujolais. Later I got a chance to make a barrel of wine with one of my brother’s very good friends who was working at Ridge Winery in California. I had this experience of making wine and it was one of the funnest things I had ever done and that’s when I drank the Kool-Aid.
How did that transition into City Winery?
City Winery was a well thought out, methodical plan in order to look at what could be a money-making music business centered around wine. Or you could rephrase it a money making winery business centered around music — they’re interchangeable. We thought of going for a sort of older demographic who have disposable income and are very underserved. These audiences don’t want to stand, they want to sit, they want to be treated in a much more refined way and many of them are pressed for time. So we’ve created a luxury concert experience. We’re really only the game in town putting on a show at the level that we’re putting it on and taking a kind of Danny Meyer restaurant approach to the customer experience for a show. We have shows with the Crosby Stills and Nashes and the Joan Armatrading and last month had Gregg Allman here.
Now you are expanding City Winery. Is there a risk in too much, too soon?
Certainly expansion that is too fast or undercapitalized will not be successful. But a well-planned, strategized and methodical rollout into the right markets mitigates how risky it is. We made a mistake with Napa, but we learned from it. Our openings in Atlanta and Boston; then Toronto; Washington, D.C.; Houston; Denver; Seattle; Miami and wherever else we land in the next few years will be responsible expansion.
Who was your business mentor?
If I have to have one in person it’s George Wein. He’s someone i’ve been close friends with for the last 15 years and we have a very interesting relationship because I started by very much competing with him but he never looked at me in any negative way. He taught me a lot of lessons and continues to be a close friend and just an incredible gentleman.
What is City Winery’s place within the larger touring landscape?
We’re very bullish on the state of touring. As the supply of older talent with some degree of brand awareness continues to age, the expectations of their fans will create more of a need for a space like ours. Live Nation is not getting into the high-end restaurant/wine business, and, frankly, there aren’t too many wineries going into the concert business.
So what do you say to someone who says there are no second acts?
I’d say they’re looking at the wine glass as half empty.
R&B artist Bill Withers has successfully secured himself a place in music history. Despite leaving Hollywood behind in the ’80s, songs of his such as “Lean On Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Grandma’s Hands” continue to be loved by audiences and musicians alike.
To celebrate Withers’ notable legacy, City Winery’s founder/CEO Michael Dorf, National Program Director Shlomo Lipetz, musical director Greg Phillinganes, industry veteran Leo Sacks and Withers’ wife, Marcia, co-produced “Lean On Him: A Tribute to Bill Withers” which was held at the historical Carnegie Hall on Oct. 1. Wither’s famed concert album, Live At Carnegie Hall (which turns 43 this week) was performed in its entirety by the nights’ star-studded line up including Ed Sheeran, Amos Lee, Keb’ Mo’, Dr. John, Michael McDonald, Ledisi, Jonathan Butler, Aloe Blacc and many others. Wither’s daughter Kori attended, taking on back-up vocals and performing “Let Us Love” with Kathy Mattea. In addition to re-creating the record from front to back, other fan favorites were played. Although Withers did not perform, he addressed the crowd at the beginning and end of the show, thanking everyone for their support.
Besides honoring the legend, the evening also benefited a great cause. Proceeds from the concert were donated to SAY, the Stuttering Association for the Young, an organization close to Withers, who struggled with a stuttering problem throughout early adulthood. The concert raised over $50,000 for the charity and also featured a choir of children from the association who took the stage to help McDonald perform “Lean On Me.”
Next up in the Tribute series is a tribute to the music of David Bowie on March 31, 2016. Mark your calendar!
Photos by Bobby Bank
Pete Muller will be making his way to City Winery NYC on Oct. 28 as part of a short benefit tour. For each date, the singer/songwriter/pianist will team up with different charities to raise awareness and money for their cause. For the Manhattan stop, he will be working with the Robin Hood Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to end poverty throughout New York City. All the proceeds from his upcoming album Two Truths and a Lie, which will be released on Oct. 28, will go directly towards Charity: Water, an organization that provides fresh, clean water to those living in developing countries.
When Vin Scelsa said he planned to retire on May 2, we knew we couldn’t let him just drift away without a proper sendoff. So we rounded up some of his favorite musicians, writers, and friends to say Fare Thee Well, Vin Scelsa on Monday, June 8, in front of a packed house of WFUV members, guests and friends at City Winery.
Fittingly, to the opening strains of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (played by saxophonist Peter Hess), Rolling Stone Senior Writer David Fricke kicked things off with a benediction and explained how he initially came up with the “Three Essential Commandments” (“Respect the elders; embrace the new; encourage the impractical and improbable, without bias”), a phrase which would eventually become the opening credo for every “Idiot’s Delight” from the early ’90s onward.
Some of the musical highlights included Albany’s own Blotto performing their immortal surf rocker “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard.” The evening’s house band was The Bongos (led by the show’s indefatigable musical director, Richard Barone, and including the Smithereens’ Dennis Diken on drums), reunited for this special occasion, and they followed Blotto with a jaunty version of “Barbarella” (playing “The Bulrushes” later in the evening).
Lucy Wainwright Roche and Martha Plimpton duetted on a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and later in the night, Lucy and her mom Suzzy Roche chose a road-tripping classic, Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” Both Lucy and Suzzy backed Dar Williams on a perfect choice, her new song, “FM Radio.”
Yo La Tengo recruited David Bromberg for a tender cover of Bob Dylan’s “Wallflower” and also tore into a searing version of their own “Tom Courtenay.” Southside Johnny tapped Bromberg for B.B. King’s “Beautician Blues” and embarked on an especially soulful version of “Spanish Harlem,” joined by The Bongos, string players Deni Bonet and David Mansfield, and Tracy Stark on piano. In the last hour of the show, Bromberg, on his own, played a compelling “Statesboro Blues/Church Bell Blues.”
Marshall Crenshaw amusingly recounted an anecdote about his album #447 and Vin’s response to it, and played two songs from that 1999 album. Mary Lee Kortes chose her own “Will Anybody Know That I Was Here” while Laura Cantrell and Dayna Kurtz opted for Johnny Cash’s “A Little At A Time.” Larry Kirwan spoke eloquently about Vin before rousing the room with Black 47’s “James Connelly.”
Stephen Trask, composer and lyricist of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, stepped up as a strong vocalist himself with a stunning version of the musical’s “Midnight Radio,” backed by The Bongos and Dar Williams. Garland Jeffreys, Willie Nile, and James Maddock teamed up with rowdy gusto on John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth.”
There were also salutes from writers Paul Auster and Rick Moody, radio compañeros Kara Manning and Marty Martinez, concert promoter John Scher, and the evening’s MCs — Dennis Elsas, Meg Griffin, and Rita Houston. Recorded well-wishes from Sheryl Crow, Tim Robbins, Jim Jarmusch, John Cameron Mitchell, Dean Wareham, Mike Doughty and Steven Van Zandt were scattered throughout the evening.
One special moment came when Vin’s daughter Kate Scelsa, an accomplished actor and writer, gave a personal and witty toast to her dad. Vin himself took the stage near the end, to a standing ovation, to offer thanks in his inimitable fashion. Then The Bongos and David Johansen brought it home with “Funky But Chic” and the standard, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It was a rocking, heartfelt evening all around.