Wine and Cheese: A Match Made in Heaven

Last week, City Winery Chicago hosted a cheese and wine pairing class discussing the basics of pairing these two delicious fermentables.  City Winery’s Beverage Director Rachel Driver Speckan and Provenance Food & Wine’s Cheesemonger Nicole Benjamin were as well paired as the fare that evening, each engagingly sharing their expertise and taking questions. There was a great variety represented among the 5 cheeses, as well as some stellar wines.


Of the 5 pairings, my 3 favorites were:

Petit Exquis D’argental (French cow cheese, triple crème) and Huet Petillant 2009 (sparkling Vouvray): The acidic, bubbly Vouvray cuts through the all that rich, wonderful fat in the cheese.


Meister Eagle Cave Reserve (Wisconsin cow cheese) and Movia 2005 (Slovenian Pinot Nero): The earthy tones in both the wine and the cheese complement and accentuate one another. Fun fact: cheese can pick up different flavors from the particular cave in which it is aged (or what I am henceforth referring to as “cave terroir”).


Rogue Smokey Blue (Oregon cow cheese) and Quinta Noval 10 Year Tawny Port: The silky sweetness of the port contrasted nicely with the super smokey and bold blue cheese. Both the cheese and the wine had a nice kick to them too!


Some basic advice on pairing and cheese storage:

-Tannic reds do not pair well with soft cheeses

-Triple crèmes go especially well with Champagne, as well as Burgundy (red or white) and Pinot Noir

-To best preserve cheese, wrap it in wax or parchment paper

-Blue cheese is best stored in Tupperware

If this post made you salivate a little, I’d highly recommend coming to our next wine and cheese class featuring Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese on April 10. See you there!

-Alex Weaver, City Winery Chicago

The New York Times: Music and Wine Formula


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.


Michael Dorf is the founder of the flagship club in New York. CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

“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.”


in the foreground Mr. Dorf talks with reporters in the Napa space. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

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.

Major investment has been raised for its growth. The Napa space, set to open with the Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn, is being developed at a cost of $2.5 million at the Napa Valley Opera House, which was built in 1880 but has struggled financially. Nashville, where City Winery is also buying property, is budgeted for $7.5 million; Mr. Dorf is eyeing Boston next. (Chicago cost $9 million, and $5 million was raised for the original New York club.)

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 Manhattan room is known for hosting singer-songwriters like Steve Earle.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

“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.


David S. Ware, on tenor saxophone, and Rashied Ali, on drums, in 2001 at Mr. Dorf’s previous venture, the Knitting Factory.CreditJack Vartoogian for The New York Times

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.

City Winery still offers winemaking by the barrel. But more than half the wine it makes is served at the restaurant or shared with the artists as merchandise. A Cowboy Junkies label, for example, can be slapped on a blank bottle and sold for about $35, with $10 of that going to the band. The Napa business, supplied by 30 local wineries, will eschew on-site winemaking altogether. (Why compete with Napa wine in Napa?)

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.”

Raising A Pint Amidst The Wine Glasses

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Raising A Pint Amidst The Wine Glasses (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Drink Beer in a Winery)
(or if that’s too much: “Yes, You Can Order a Beer at the Winery”)

Just because you’re at a City Winery doesn’t mean you have to suddenly transform into a wine snob at the door. We’re passionate about our wine, and want to show off the amazing work that winemaker Robert Kowal does – but that doesn’t mean we don’t know our beer. Beverage Director Rachel Driver Speckan and Manager Dan Morgridge are both Cicerone Certified Beer Servers, and the beer menu is tailored to show off both accessible and adventurous pairings. Changing seasonally, the menu focuses on local and regional breweries, as well as fun selections from breweries around the country and world. Looking for something to pair with our mussels instead of Sauv Blanc? Try Off Color ‘s Troublesome, a gose-style beer from Chicago’s west side instead! Looking for something to go with steak, but aren’t up for a big Cabernet tonight? Try Gouden Carolus’ “Cuvee Van De Keizer Blauw, a lucious red-hued Belgian ale that is literally fit for an Emperor.
Our beer program is always striving to offer the most exciting options to pair with our kitchen’s food, but on occasion we also like to let the beer set the menu. On March 5th, we’ll be hosting a class on craft beers and brewing, with tastes of fun and exotic brews with food dreamed up by the kitchen to accentuate them. Come join us for some advanced education and advanced drinking!