City Winery Will Open in New York

Manhattan's first bonded winery to blend private label winery and private event space

by Jane Firstenfeld
Urban winery
Michael Dorf
New York, N.Y. -- If you can make wine there, you can make it anywhere. City Winery, brainchild of entrepreneur/promoter Michael Dorf, is scheduled to open in Manhattan's downtown Soho this fall. "It's a hybrid between a winery and private event space," Dorf told Wines & Vines.

To that end, he's secured two contiguous properties at 143 Varick St., and he's in the process of obtaining an on-premise license for the private event space and a producing license as a bonded winery. But while the club will be open to the public, the winemaking facilities (capable of processing up to 120 tons of grapes) will remain exclusive to members and to the "house," which, Dorf said, will bottle about 100 barrels of its own brand.

Members, also known as "barrel owners," can join at three levels, starting with a $5,000 annual membership fee, not including costs for grapes, barrels and labeling. For this, they'll receive a 50-gallon American oak barrel, four annual classes taught by well-known winemakers, and participation in members-only "wine markets," at which they can swap their vintages with other members.

Since members will not be bonded wineries themselves, barrel owners are prohibiting from selling their product, Dorf explained. According to the website citywinery.com, depending on members' choices of grapes, oak, and packaging, "basic" barrel owners will end up with about 250 .750L bottles costing $25 to $40 each. Upper-tier memberships for corporate gifting programs are also available at $12,000 per barrel ($60 per bottle). The Premier Winemaker Program offers additional privileges and costs $15,000 per year.

Urban winery
Head winemaker David Lecomte
Members will be guided through the process by head winemaker David Lecomte, a native of France who has a master's degree in enology from the University of Montpellier and a résumé that includes stints at Chapoutier Estate and California's renowned kosher winery Herzog Wine Cellars. City Winery will be qualified to produce kosher wine "by Orthodox standards." (For more on kosher wine, see, "Winemaker Interview JEFF MORGAN")

Grapes will be sourced from premium growing regions from New York's Long Island and Finger Lakes region to Washington state, Oregon and on down to California's Central Coast. Grapes will be gently packed and chilled overnight before refrigerated shipment to New York, where they will arrive within six to eight days.

The winery will be fully equipped with jacketed stainless steel tanks and a flexible bottling line to accommodate member choices. The glycol refrigeration for the tanks presented Dorf with an unusual problem: In Manhattan, glycol units require a special "MEA number" that's not needed elsewhere in New York. Since no commercial wineries existed, Dorf worked with his supplier to create custom tanks that meet borough standards.

That wasn't the only bureaucratic hoop he encountered: Winery wastewater must be filtered before going into the city sewer system, and pomace will be trucked out every night. Dorf has found a private contractor to haul the grape residue to an organic farmer in upstate New York.

Dorf, who considers himself "a serious fan of the grape," has been nurturing this project for the past two years. He was inspired by his own first attempts at winemaking four years ago, when he and his brother made three barrels of Cabernet with David Tate, then at Ridge Vineyard. "It was phenomenal," Dorf recalled. Since then, he's made a barrel every vintage.

In recent years, Wines & Vines has reported on both custom crush and urban wineries from Southern California to Eastern Washington; we even covered a new winery/vineyard on New York's Staten Island (see, "Vineyards in New York City?"). But a commercial winery in Manhattan? Why there? Why now?

Urban winery
Dorf, whose credits include the Knitting Factory nightclubs in New York and Los Angeles, the Digital Club network, Tribeca Hebrew after-school programs, the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival and New York's week-long Jewish music event, Ohyoo Festival, surmised that the only reason Manhattan does not already have a winery is the cost and scarcity of real estate. "I think there's enough demand for a private-label winery," he said. "My goal is to combine the appealing, sexy quality of a winery with a space for fine food and entertainment."

Although the winery itself will be "members only," City Winery's adjoining private event space will be open to the public. It will feature more than 50 wines by the glass every night. There will be a flexible space suitable for art exhibitions and special events for parties of 20 to 400 people. With his background as a musical empresario, Dorf ordered a professional-grade sound system from Meyer Sound Laboratories in Berkeley, Calif. City Winery's glassware will be sure to sparkle: Dorf is installing a dedicated, specially exhausted room that will clean glasses at 190°F.

Dorf was careful to differentiate City Winery from a custom-crush facility, where professionals can make wines for sale. Manhattan's distance from even the nearest Long Island vineyards, and the fact that he will source grapes from far more remote growing regions, he said, emphasizes "the beauty of an urban winery. Here in New York, it will show more clearly the dichotomy between a vineyard and a winery. Historically, great vineyards sell to wineries. An urban winery really highlights that difference. We actually get to source from where the best grapes are grown.

"I have no interest in labeling our wine a 'New York' wine. If we make a Riesling from North Fork, we'll label it that. When we make a Cabernet from a Napa vineyard, we'll label it with the vineyard name."

Although Dorf estimates that 99% of City Winery barrel owners will opt for the vineyards he contracts with and follow the master winemaker's suggestions, "We will go to all extremes to meet their needs and desires. If there's one meshugana (crazy) person who wants grapes from a Montrachet vineyard, I'd do anything I could to persuade them to sell (to us)."

Although Dorf defined his own experience as "dabbling, purely as a serious fan of winemaking," he explained why City Winery is a good fit for him. "Running a nightclub in Manhattan for 20 years, you get to understand what it takes to deal with the difficult operations of a very public place in a personal way." And, he assured us, at City Winery there will be no velvet rope.
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