After opening the first City Winery in New York City in 2008, owner Michael Dorf has transformed the combo restaurant-wine bar-music venue into a national brand. City Winery is in business in Chicago, Napa Valley, and Nashville, and further expansion is planned for Boston, Houston, and Washington, D.C. But first, an Atlanta location at Ponce City Market is coming in March, complete with a massive 400-bottle wine list. Here, Dorf explains the idea behind the concept and what Atlantans can expect.
On the inspiration for City Winery:
"I got into wine-making and made a barrel of wine in '04 in California with a great wine-maker at [Ridge Vineyards]. I've always been into wine, studied wine, but nothing like actually making it with a wine maker, and in high quality grapes. I was trying to figure out, 'how do I really do this thing?' And it was actually another year later, a year and a half, in 2006 I was with my family in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and I came across a For Sale sign on some land. I said to my family, 'What do you guys think? Should we sell the apartment in Manhattan?' And my wife in the front seat said, 'No fucking way. We're not moving from New York to Oregon and getting into the wine business.'
"So it's sort of one of those things where necessity breeds invention. I thought, 'What can I do to make wine, be the wine business, and be in Manhattan?' The concept of an urban winery got me very excited, being in the largest urban area in the world. I did some due diligence and studied more on how to do it, and then eventually got on some level cold feet on the idea of just doing a pure winery, and that would actually be too risky. The hardest thing in wine is not making the wine, it's actually selling the wine.
"And so that's when I was actually like, 'Maybe I should be smart and connect wine-making to a concert facility. That's what I do know how to do.' We worked really hard to make sure it wasn't just about drinking, but that it was the whole experience around being there. So it was good food to complement the wine, and wine not served in plastic cups. We really ended up pushing hard for a year and a half, two years, as we were starting the thing in New York, to develop the luxury concert experience, really pushing for that entire experience around the show, focused around the idea of wine consumption, wine enjoyment, and wine-making."
On City Winery's design:
"So when I built the second place in Chicago, I was able to luckily take the lessons of New York and really figure out a state that surrounded the concert experience with the wine-making. Very visual, behind glass, while we did that a little bit in New York, I was constrained by space. So Chicago really became the prototype of what I really was trying to build. It connected a transparent wine-making facility that is surrounded within a concert environment. Chicago really became the 2.0 version, and when it took off really quickly and successfully, I realized, this is a model that seems to be appropriate for sophisticated, cultured audience, and that good cities around the globe might be very interested in this combination.
I would like to say that Atlanta is going to be our best
"And Atlanta will be very similar to Chicago. In fact, I would like to say that Atlanta is going to be our best, because again, we keep learning."
On the cuisine Atlantans can expect:
"Our core menu is essentially food that pairs well with wine. We really try to enforce the pairing idea, because most people go to a restaurant, and then they order food first, and then they decide, 'Well, this wine would go well with the food.' We try to take the opposite approach. We said, 'All right, someone wants to sit down in there and drink the Pinot Noir. What is the most appropriate food to pair with Pinot? Or what is the most appropriate food to pair with Chardonnay?' So we developed a core menu that actually touches a lot of cuisines. At base we have a real Mediterranean core: Italian, French, Spanish, Greek, which all share their salty-ish ingredients. Your most basic cheese and bread is. Some people call it pita, some people call it flatbread. There are some basics in there with charcuterie. Our top-selling foods are risotto balls. You can't beat a classic hamburger. We have great fish and great meat — foods that pair with wine.
There will be some local decisions ... that will be a lot more Southern and Georgian
"And then every location has its own executive chef. We have yet to hire our executive chef in Atlanta, but there will be some local decisions and non-forced core menu that will be a lot more Southern and Georgian and in the spirit of the South."
On the venue's concerts:
"There is a singer-songwriter focus. All of our rooms kind of have the very similar and very overlapping musical style. So you can look at the website and see. We just had Lucinda Williams for multiple nights in Chicago. We have Joan Armatrading coming up this week in New York. We've got Gregg Allman from the Allman Brothers. We do the Crosby, Stills & Nash guys and Suzanne Vega, and that crossover of singer-songwriter is our bread and butter.
I don't like to say old fogey, but sometimes it's mostly where the core audience is certainly older
"But with that, we will go into R&B, and I'm excited to say we've had some secret shows with Prince, which were big highlights for us, obviously, in the company. He played New York and multiple nights and Chicago, and he loved our space. So we can accommodate the quiet singer-songwriter to obviously a major concert arena act. We're primarily sit-down. Ninety-nine percent of our shows are sit-down. We're — I don't like to say old fogey, but sometimes it's mostly where the core audience is certainly older.
"It's different from a standing concert. I love that. We're not taking away from any room that has that kind of environment, but there's nothing like seeing a show in a 300 sit-down. There's a certain kind of intimacy in that experience. And then combine it with a 400-bottle wine list and great food, and it's just something very unique that we're excited to be bringing into Atlanta."
On the decision to open in Atlanta at Ponce City Market:
"Well, Atlanta's a big city, obviously. It's one of the larger cities in the country. The food scene seems to be really firing on a lot of cylinders. I've enjoyed some great nights and food there. The music scene also seems vibrant, but has clearly an opening for what we're doing. It was underserved in that sense. We thought there was a real opportunity to get in. And then there's the proximity to Nashville being three-and-a-half hours away really allowed us to do some routing, so things that would go through Atlanta, we felt strong about the ability to then do the day before [in Nashville], day after in Atlanta.
I looked all over, and frankly could not find anything that was as great [as Ponce City Market]
"We got a great opportunity obviously at Ponce City Market — very aware of the developer, Jamestown, who did Chelsea Market in New York, which is a fantastic place. And they told us about what they're doing there. It was quite exciting. I still looked around Midtown. I really like the Midtown area. I looked all over, and frankly could not find anything that was as great on location and had kind of the look and feel and that authenticity of a rehabilitated building. Most of our places are these kind of old brick buildings, and to find something that had that same character was cool. And to know that this is going to be a food-focused new development was right up our alley."