Talking Up Downtown: Michael Dorf

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Owner of City Winery

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Michael Dorf, creator and owner of City Winery, at 155 Varick St. in Soho’s Hudson Square, talks about life as an entrepreneur—and it is so darn satisfying Downtown when you run a winery/restaurant/music venue.
How did City Winery come about?
Well, it was born out of a desire to pursue my passions, really. I figured out a hospitality model around some of the things I love most: wine, music and food. It was almost a hedonistic enterprise made for me and by me in the hopes that what appealed to me would appeal to others. Luckily for me, it did.

So you’re a real entrepreneur, then?
Yeah, you’ve got to figure out how to make money doing what you love to do in the world. The real sign of that is when it’s hard to tell what is effort and what is enjoyment. I just had to find a culture and environment that needed a business like the sort of business that would make me happy.

Was City Winery your first endeavor?
There’s a history of entrepreneurship in the family. My grandfather had a food distribution business that my father also ran. I was next in line for it, but in college I realized I was more interested in selling the arts, figuring out what that was and where that was possible.

So when I was 23, I came to the city. I was managing a rock band at the time and tried to start up my own recording business. That failed, and a year later I turned that space into a live venue, The Knitting Factory, which opened in 1987 on Houston Street and later moved to Leonard Street. I left there in 2003 but have been in the music and promoting world for 25 years now.

Both the Knitting Factory and City Winery have been Downtown venues. Why is that?
For me, I never considered uptown. I’ve always had my businesses Downtown. If the choice is up or down, I’m a Downtown guy. Since this is for me, ultimately I want it to be a place that my friends and I want to go. And we want to hang out Downtown.

Has your Downtown location served you well?
It’s definitely hitting the mark. We had lofty expectations that it would do well, and sure enough, it’s doing very, very well.

What’s the most surprising element of success at City Winery?
I knew tickets could be sold to shows. I knew how to sell alcohol at shows. I knew how to add food and atmosphere for patrons to make those experiences of live shows and the alcohol at live shows worthwhile. The one thing I wasn’t 100 percent sure of was whether or not I could make good wine. I hired a great winemaker and bought great equipment, but I wasn’t certain we’d know until…well, until we either had very good or very bad wine. So it’s not a surprise but more of a relief that our wine is phenomenal. We keep selling out, we can never keep enough supply. And I’m feeling blessed that bringing grapes from around the country—and turning those grapes into world-class wine—has been such a success.

What can we look forward to at City Winery?
We’re expanding fairly quickly and building in Chicago. We’ll be opening in June there. We also have wine on tap in our New York location; this is wine without sulfites so it’s very, very fresh. It’s a pretty unique way to consume wine, as there are no preservatives in it for the sake of the wine to travel.

Our shows at City Winery continue to stay happy; we have more and more artists who want to perform here so you can always look out for new music. In short, there’s always something to look forward to here. There’s always something new.

For more information and upcoming shows, visit www.citywinery.com.

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