City Winery winds down on Varick; Heading to Pier 57

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | City Winery, the Hudson Square music hot spot, will be closing on Varick St. on Aug. 1.

But it won’t be “the day the music died”: The tunes-and-vino venue will be reopening in January in a stunning new setting at Pier 57, at W. 15th St., in Hudson River Park.

Owner Michael Dorf currently has a lot brewing — or, rather, fermenting. He opened another City Winery in Rockefeller Center last month, has one opening in Philadelphia next month, and is very excited about soon uncorking yet another location — City Winery Hudson Valley, located on 22 acres near Newburgh, N.Y.

“It will be the perfect wedding and event space, only 90 minutes from New York,” he said.

It’s been a barrel of laughs, good times and great music at City Winery on Varick St., but Michael Dorf is pulling up stakes to head to Pier 57 in the Chelsea section of Hudson River Park. (Courtesy Michael Dorf)

But he said it’s not going to be a Woodstock concert-like venue.

“I don’t think it will snowball into a Woodstock,” he said. “People wouldn’t want that. It’ll never be Bethel Woods.”

City Winery now has eight locations around the country, including a smallish spot, City Vinery, at Pier 26, in the Tribeca section of Hudson River Park.

As for the Pier 57 space, it will have about the same number of seats — 300 — as Varick St.

As has been his practice, the musical acts will continue to get the majority of the ticket revenue. City Winery’s business model, in turn, is to make money on the sale of wine and food. In one of the business’s hallmarks, the wine is made on site. To be a true “bonded winery,” each location must produce more than the federal minimum of 600 gallons of wine per year.

The grapes mainly come from California. Dorf said New York’s grapes unfortunately can’t compete with those grown in sunny California, and flying them in from places like Australia is costly.

Although the musical acts will continue to get most of the ticket revenue, Dorf will have to pay to the Hudson River Park Trust what he called the “crazy rent” at Pier 57.

He said he didn’t want the actual figure printed in the paper.

He was told he had to vacate the Varick St. space after Trinity Real Estate sold the entire block to Disney, which will develop a new headquarters building there. However, Trinity Church — whose extensive property holdings were deeded to it by the English crown in colonial times — had previously encouraged him to invest in improvements in the Varick location, as he tells it. Dorf was working on adding a second-floor space, when Trinity abruptly closed the Disney deal, and Disney promptly sent him an eviction letter, leaving Dorf feeling burned. He is currently suing Trinity to recover the money he poured into upgrading the space.

“All we are trying to do is recover the investment we made flying on their promise,” Dorf said of Trinity. “We just want them to be a mensch and deal with this morally and ethically. Is that too much to ask of a church?”

Dorf, originally from Milwaukee, said he “felt a connection to New York” ever since he was 16. After launching a record label back home — Mr. Bloodstein’s Knitting Factory — he opened the Knitting Factory, his first New York music venue, in 1987, after moving to the city when he was 23. After a few years on E. Houston St., he reopened the place in Tribeca, on Leonard St.

At the Knitting Factory, he focused on avant-garde multi-genre music.

“Sonic Youth played a lot,” he said, of “The Knit.” “Early They Might Be Giants. It was where Beck had his first show in New York. Ornette Coleman, Geri Allen, Cassandra Wilson, John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards. We had Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.”

Dorf was such a purist, he even turned down Phish when they gave him a demo tape, telling them they sounded “derivative of the Grateful Dead. We’re going for more avant-garde music,” he told the now-famed jam band.

“I had this bizarre integrity of wanting to have avant-garde music,” he said. “I was one of the biggest schmucks in all of music. That month, I also turned down Harry Connick, Jr. I said it sounded too much like straight-ahead jazz. But that’s where my head was at. If I had my 57-year-old brain in my 23-year-old body at the time, I would have given them the gig.”

Following the closing of the Knitting Factory, Dorf gave it some serious thought and came up with a whole new direction and business model.

“Eleven years ago, I set up City Winery,” he said. “I thought, ‘What’s going to draw a roomful of people similar to me and fill a room with people that want to see music?’ The singer-songwriter model really fills that role very nicely.”

The food and beverages were an important part of the mix. City Winery features fare like flatbreads, burgers, risotto balls and duck tacos, plus its home-brewed wine, which Dorf refers to as the world’s oldest true “craft beverage,” predating beer.

The types of acts that have defined City Winery at Varick St. have been the likes of Steve Earle, Suzanne Vega, Joan Osborne, Joan Armatrading, Los Lobos, Squeeze.

“The Crosby, Stills and Nash guys, we’ve had them all separately,” Dorf said. “They’re going to tour and play until the day they die. They love it so much, and they love their audience. And we’re the perfect venue for them.”

Part of the formula is seating, with drinking and eating, rather than standing.

“The audience that loves David Crosby is also 60 or 70 years old,” he noted. “They don’t want to stand.”

Dorf was happy to hear that Steve Earle will be headlining September’s Village Trip festival concert in Washington Square Park.

“If you want to talk about someone who lives and breathes integrity, that is Steve Earle,” he said. “His music, his work, he’s speaking his truth. He’s not shying away from it. Musically, I love his music.”

As for Pier 57, Dorf said it’s going to be tremendous.

“I hate to say ‘the best live-music venue in New York,’ but f— it, I’ll say it,” he said of the Chelsea waterfront space. “I looked at no less than 100 locations, this was the best.

“I think we’ve figured out a model between big and small venue. At the same time, you can look in the eye of the performers and vice a versa. That defines intimacy.”

That said, he noted he will be paying, literally, “100 times” the rent he was when he opened the Knitting Factory on Leonard St. in 1987. That rent spike is, in part, what has been driving music out of the city, in addition to changes in how music is distributed.

“New York real estate is not fully inflation,” he noted, “it’s another level. All I know is that we found a model, and according to our Excel spreadsheet, we can afford to rent — just barely. But most live-music venues can’t. The survivors have an opportunity to make money. You just have to figure out the right model.”

Music venues started shifting to Brooklyn, he noted, “but Brooklyn real estate overtook too quickly. You have a lot of music now in Nashville and Hudson Valley.”

Jakob Dylan and The Wallflowers will be playing City Winery, on Varick St., on Mon., July 29, and Tues., July 30, and Joan Osborne will be closing it down on Wed., July 31.

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