City Winery’s Michael Dorf on the Art of Rebounding in Style

Tuesday, August 6, 2019
In an era where a few major international corporations run an increasing number of New York's live performance venues, the loss of any independent space brings a twitch of here-we-go-again concern. That’s why the news that the popular City Winery had closed at the end of July hit me hard. But the pain was short-lived, because the spot simply got caught in the middle of a surprise sale by the land’s owner, Trinity Church, to Disney. Though City Winery’s CEO and founder, Michael Dorf, is taking Trinity to court over the conflict, his venue is set to quickly rebound with an already-signed multiyear lease at the soon-to-open Pier 57. Dorf has built an extremely successful entrepreneurial career out of managing moving parts, rebounding from his divorce from the original Tribeca Knitting Factory—which he founded in 1983—with the creation of City Winery in 2008. This has allowed him to grow his philanthropic efforts, too: In support of the Jewish community, Puerto Rico, and arts education by way of his now-legendary Carnegie Hall “Music of” tribute shows. What Should We Do recently spoke with Dorf about the genesis and future of New York City’s largest urban winery, his favorite shows at the now-defunct Varick Street location, and his plans for the international future of City Winery. What Should We Do: With your final performance at Varick Street over, are you currently moving out of the venue? Michael Dorf: We're pretty much done as of now, but we’ve been engaged in the move for some time. It’s an incredible matrix: Our last show at Varick was on July 31, but by then our offices were already outsourced to a temporary space and our winery was 100 percent moved to an upstate facility. We’ve ended up trucking a lot of the kitchen equipment to our Philadelphia location, which is opening in September. Everything has a home and a purpose. WSWD: When will the new location at Pier 57 open? Dorf:  We’re aiming for January or February of the new year. WSWD: Do you remember how the concept of City Winery originally came about? Dorf: You have to go way back to my days with the Knitting Factory. I think I overdosed on media there; we were simultaneously developing our record company and our television shows, and [had] gotten involved in the new phenomenon of online music digitization. When I left the Knit in 2003, I really wanted to “cultivate my garden,” if you will, and made a conscious decision that my next project would be about building a very real, very tangible space. Around that time, I got a chance to make my first barrel of wine. I had always been an oenophile as a collector and a drinker, but I was surprised by how much I truly enjoyed getting my hands dirty with the grapes. It was incredibly rewarding, but I knew I wasn’t built to move to California and tend a vineyard. What I did know was how to run a venue. So that’s the start of the idea of an urban winery inside a music club.
I was surprised by how much I truly enjoyed getting my hands dirty with the grapes.
I always tell younger entrepreneurs that you have to focus on a product or a process that you love and that you personally would find useful. It’s hard to sell something if you don’t believe in it. For me, I didn’t want to go to a place where I had to stand all night for a concert; I wanted a spot to sit and enjoy my own wine while I listened. And If I’m going to drink good wine, I don’t want it to be out of a plastic cup; I want to savor it. And if I’m drinking and listening to music, I want to eat real food that matches the quality of the evening. On top of all that, I had the cliché, middle-aged New York yuppie dilemma of not having enough time to have a real dinner plus a bottle of wine plus a concert all in one night. That’s a four-hour window and I only have two hours on any given night to commit to that kind of indulgence. So what I wanted to build was a space that covered all those needs in a concentrated, thorough, luxurious way. WSWD: That recipe seems to have worked. Dorf: I get a solicited email almost every day from a real-estate agent or potential partner across America: Asheville, North Carolina; Cincinnati; Pittsburgh; Denver. Every day someone asks me to help them anchor the rebuild of an old mall or to bring the kind of entertainment that City Winery is known for to their city. “We think you should be there." Being in demand with something that can only get better—that part is very exciting, as well.
city winery new york Photo courtesy of City Winery NYC/Facebook
  WSWD: Are you interested in growing internationally? Dorf: I am and we are. More than likely London will be our first European destination. We’re close to announcing a location in Toronto next year. Then we’re talking to some people in Barcelona, and some investors in Paris and Italy. Europe is particularly interesting in that it would take us back to the Old World, where the wine industry really started. We’ve also spoken about Israel and licensing deals in Asia. There’s a lot of room for growth internationally and plenty more cities Stateside that would be a good fit for what we do. The next decade should be very busy. WSWD: Back at home, I’m curious to talk about the reasons behind your move to Pier 57. It’s being reported as a 25-year lease, so you’re clearly planning on staying there for the long-term. Dorf: That’s right. There’s a whole sad story about how we came to leave Varick, but let me say this first: We learned a lot from when we first opened, and we’re going to be able to greatly improve what we do when the doors open at Pier 57. That’s not a rationalization, it’s just true.
You still need to make recorded music in order to build an audience, but the main way artists get compensated today is through performances.
The issue is that we were expecting that when this move happened, it would be something that we would ease into when the moment was right. Trinity Church had always told us that we would have ample time, that if a changeover was ever going to happen, we would be able to transition in a way where we wouldn’t have any downtime between venue locations. WSWD: And instead you’re looking at a six-month break. Clearly not your intention? Dorf: Absolutely not. Unfortunately the church didn’t live up to its word and so we’re in a very intense legal battle with them now. All we want is for them to be a mensch here, to be fair about the circumstance and compensate us accordingly. They had us sign an expanded five-year lease literally right before we got a demolition notice. We certainly never expected to move so soon after investing $2 million in the location. Luckily, we’re a big enough company where we can make this work, but not everybody could. The unfortunate downside to a system that provides outsize support to big developers and real-estate moguls is that the smaller businesses, which used to be the lifeblood of the city, get shut out. WSWD: With as many businesses as you’re trying to run, you have to have a lot of faith in your team to keep all the plates spinning. Dorf: Every department has a great leader. Schlomo Lipetz, our music director, and David Lecomte, who heads up the winemaking, have been with us in New York since day one. David Miller, our COO, brings 25 years of experience from the Hard Rock Café. Our CFO, Angela Alvino, and our HR head, Anum Ganju, come to mind immediately as people who keep everything moving like clockwork. I can’t emphasize enough that the only reason this thing continues to be such a success is because we have such a capable team. I sleep better at night knowing their hands are on the wheel. WSWD: What current trends in the entertainment industry are you most excited about? Dorf: I think what has been encouraging, with the continuing overdigitization of just about everything, is how precious and vital the practice of live music has become for artists and audiences. More music is consumed now than it ever has been in history, but the overwhelming majority of that music’s creators simply don’t make enough money from recording sales to live on. You still need to make recorded music in order to build an audience, but the main way artists get compensated today is through performances. The live music industry has only become more and more critical to the economics of the artists and, in turn, those rarefied moments to see the artists become more valuable for everyone involved.
Deep in my heart, I’m a kind of romantic poet, so that was the perfect ending to an imperfect situation.
WSWD:  I know you’re leaving under duress, but does that color your good memories of the space in any way? Dorf: Oh, no. I’m going to carry around memories of those unbelievable shows Prince did for the rest of my life; nothing can take that away. Right up until the end it’s been an amazing ride. In our last few weeks, we had a Lou Reed tribute and, oh, my God, what Patti Smith and all those gifted artists did onstage! That was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, period. Following two nights with the Wallflowers, we closed with Joan Osborne and a whole slew of guests. That was perfect symmetry for me, because Joan did our first show and opened the space for us. Deep in my heart, I’m a kind of romantic poet, so that was the perfect ending to an imperfect situation.  

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