A new type of urban winery

Friday, 10. June 2016 - 10:45

Craft spirits, small-batch cider and independent breweries are taking the US beverage market by storm, not only because they offer a better-tasting product and fresher ingredients, but also because they have learned to do what winemakers do: tell a compelling story.

One advantage these beverage artisans have is mobility. Untethered from vineyards and châteaux, they are free to produce directly in city centres, close to their customers. There is, of course, plenty of urban winemaking going on as well, though most operations are typically tucked away in warehouse districts where rents are less expensive, and where the food isn’t usually created by a resident chef. One major exception to this model is City Winery.

Just over a decade ago, entertainment entrepreneur Michael Dorf, City Winery’s founder and CEO, was making wine with his brother Josh and winemaker David Tate (formerly of Ridge Winery, now at Barnett Vineyards), just as a hobby. The response he got from his friends when he offered them bottles of his wine struck a chord and in 2006 he put his business plan together. In 2008, City Winery launched in New York City.

From passion to business

City Winery is now producing wine in some of the most bustling neighbourhoods of New York, Chicago, Nashville and Atlanta, with a Boston location due to open this autumn. All are fully operating wineries, producing up to 8,000 cases in New York, 6,000 cases in Chicago, and 4,000 cases each in Nashville and Atlanta. In contrast to most urban winemaking operations, they also feature dining facilities, well-appointed bars, private events, and wine education and tastings hosted by both in-house and visiting winemakers. Significantly, they also offer live music. Half winery, half music venue, their customers can engage in the winemaking process at a number of levels, from developing a private barrel of wine, complete with personalised label, to participating in a crush. Most people, though, just choose to enjoy some wine with dinner and a live music performance.

Although City Winery offers an award-winning wine list, 70% of their wine sales come from the 20 or so they’ve produced in-house. Total wine sales represent 70% of total beverage sales. “That’s unheard of in the entertainment world,” says Dorf, acknowledging that it is partly due to the fact that “Winery” is right there in the name. “Usually it’s about 10% to 15% wine, 40% beer, 40% spirits. Here it’s 70% wine, 15% spirits and 15% beer.” What probably helps is that 70% of City Winery’s wine sales are by tap.

“We can sell as many as 1,000 glasses of wine in a night,” says Dorf. “The format of a bottle is totally inefficient, and offers none of the environmental positives of tap wine. This is straight from the barrel into a stainless steel keg, topped with argon. It’s basically perfectly preserved, and as close to out-of-the-barrel as you can get.” There’s no wine loss, either, as there are no partially consumed bottles. “For wine that’s made to drink within the first few years of it being made, the tap programme is an extremely good way to go,” adds Dorf, “and if you’re looking for something that has some age, we’re there to support it with a 400- to 500-bottle wine list.”

Although 30% of City Winery-produced wine is bottled, to give it the benefit of some ageing, Dorf is set on the tap model. “We are not in the business of making wine and asking someone to buy a bottle and not drink it for four or five years,” he says. “We’re paying New York City rent and Chicago real estate, and we’re making wine that’s approachable now.” He explains that the rest of their wine list is somewhat skewed towards Old World wines, as those are styles of wines that they can’t make themselves. “We’re thrilled to say we’re making a great Pinot Noir from Willamette and a Pinot Noir from the Russian River — which are very distinct from each other — but a Pinot noir from Burgundy, outside of Montrachet? That is very special to that region, and we’ll never recreate that.”

It’s the music

Beyond its city-centre locations and top-notch culinary and external wine offerings, what truly sets City Winery apart from other urban winemaking ventures is the calibre and incorporation of live music. “I just knew, selfishly, I love wine and I love music,” says Dorf. “And I have a bunch of friends who also care about both, so wouldn’t it be nice to combine the two into a facility that would be an efficient destination for me as a fan of both?” It seems like a simple enough plan, significantly aided by the fact that Dorf is not your average everyday music fan — he’s got connections.

In 1986, Dorf, just 23 at the time, founded The Knitting Factory, which quickly grew into one of New York City’s iconic venues for independent and alternative live music, presenting acts that included Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Bill Frisell, among others. He expanded the offerings to include music festivals, a record label, and a nationally syndicated radio programme broadcasting performances recorded at The Knitting Factory. He knows the music business, and the music business knows him. Dorf’s connections ensure City Winery’s venues regularly showcase top music talent.

Recounting a photo shoot for a popular wine and food magazine, Dorf recalls the photographer asking him to invite some friends to add interest. Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega and Priorat winemaker Alvaro Palacios were in town for events tied to City Winery, and they agreed to come. “They were talking about poetry and authors, and then we started tasting some wine,” recalls Dorf. “And Suzanne is describing the wine like a very good wine writer, with beautiful prose, elegant; and Alvaro is talking about it, too, and he sounds like a poet. So this hour which is normally the biggest pain, just waiting for the guy to get the right shot, I ended up observing the most incredible conversation of two poets talking about music and wine, and it was beautiful. I’ll never forget that.”

It is indeed a different, more mature scene than his days at The Knitting Factory. “The more adult, sophisticated, higher-end, dare I say, ‘vintage’ rock-and-roll type of performer — that audience isn’t looking for Budweiser, and it’s not looking for wine poured into a plastic cup,” says Dorf. “The person who’s coming to see Crosby Stills and Nash, or Suzanne Vega, or Joan Armatrading would rather spend a little bit more money and get a very nice glass of Burgundy poured in Riedel stemware, or homemade Cabernet from California where they can see the authenticity of the winemaking process.” Reflecting on the old saying, ‘Wine is made in the vineyard’, Dorf has to chuckle. “In a business like ours, it’s almost an oxymoron,” he says. “We have no vineyard, and we’re in the middle of the most urban markets we can think of.” While it’s accurate to say City Winery doesn’t hold a single vineyard, they do have 30 or so partners who do, and through a lot of work and strict protocols, they receive hundreds of tons of top-quality grapes at their wineries each year.

How it works

City Winery’s chief winemaker David Lecomte dabbled in vineyard selection during his work with Herzog Wine Cellars in California, and knows that the best way to receive the highest-quality grapes at the different City Winery locations is to start with high-end crop. Experienced winery and vineyard consultant Sam Spencer, who is currently president at Madder Lake Vineyard and managing partner at Head High Wines, helped facilitate some of the initial vineyard selection and growing agreements, a process Lecomte looks back on with some amusement. “We were going to those guys, saying, ‘Look, sell us some crop, we’re going to ship it across the USA and we’re going to make wine in New York’,” he recalls, “and they somehow said ‘yes’.

“It’s a challenge getting high-end crop,” he adds. “We’re very demanding.” But Lecomte, who manages the relationships with the growers — from whom they bring in 250 to 300 tons annually — says that while contracts are written up for two or three years, 90% are extended, and they still source from most of the growers they started with in 2008. One grower who’s been on board since the beginning is Stuart Bewley, founder and owner of Alder Springs Vineyard in northern Mendocino County, California.

“Our particular fruit has very thick skins,” says Bewley, who, in 1976, also co-invented the California Cooler (the first commercially produced wine cooler). “We intentionally try and get the berries small, and it’s a mountain site; skins on mountain sites are thicker than valley-grown areas, so they do really well. Dry air, very low incidence of mildew or Botrytis — our fruit is really clean, so it gets to Chicago or New York in really good condition.”

Lecomte wants the fruit chilled to just above freezing, and he requires the use of small bins for picking and shipping, something he suspects grape pickers dislike because it requires more time, but is nonetheless an essential part of the process. “The bins, not the fruit, support all the weight,” says Bewley, “so it’s able to get there in really good shape.” Then again, he never really had a concern. “My family actually grew and packed grapes and shipped them back to New York and Chicago during the ‘20s and ‘30s, during Prohibition, on rail cars,” he recounts. “I think they were in a more questionable state when they arrived,” he laughs, “but they would line the rail cars with huge blocks of ice, and roll these trains as fast as they could get them to New York before the fruit spoiled. And I thought, if they did it in the ‘20s and ‘30s, I can sure do it now.”

Grapes in one hand and a master’s degree in Enology and Winemaking from University of Montpellier in the other — and a CV including winemaking roles on three continents — Lecomte, from the Rhône Valley’s Tain-l’Hermitage, knows what to do. When asked how making wine in the heart of Manhattan differs from making it in a rural area, he shrugs off the question. “The logistics are different but the winemaking process is very similar,” he says. “We have to deal with events in the winery sometimes during harvest, but it doesn’t compromise the winemaking process at all.”

City Winery’s next winemaking facility and concert venue is due to open in Boston this autumn, and further expansion conversations have included Houston, Denver, Washington, DC and London. What’s next? Just how big is this going to get? Dorf laughs, “I would love nothing more than to be in Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Tokyo.” And you know he’s not talking about their warehouse districts. Stay tuned.

Scott Saunders

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2016 of Meininger’s Wine Business International. The magazine is available by subscription.