Industry Insiders: Michael Dorf, Wine and Music Maven

Michael Dorf first opened the legendary Knitting Factory in 1987. More recently, he’s built City Winery, a fully functioning winery in downtown Manhattan. Never one to forget his musical roots, the space doubles as a concert venue. Dorf’s vision of music and wine coexisting in the same place has people flocking to City Winery to sample the grapes and sounds.

Point of Origin: I came to New York with $20,000 in 1985. I was managing a band called Swamp Thing and trying to get them booked. I eventually convinced myself that I should rent a small office on Houston Street. With $20,000 we were able to put up the walls and serve coffee and tea for a month and get the ball rolling. I got lucky along the way, met great artists and moved up. I used radio to distribute the name the Knitting Factory, and I was very fair in terms of the door policy. 70% of the gate went to the artist so we were honest about what was coming in. Artists were freaking out about that. We could survive because we kept the bar money.

Concept of City Winery: It was a combination of epiphanies. When I left Knitting Factory, I never thought I’d do another club. I did a few big concerts and festivals, and then one day had a chance to make a barrel of wine with my brother out in California and had so much fun. The ego of being a producer came out when I started giving away the bottles that said, “Michael Dorf” on the labels. It got me thinking that there was no precedent for a winery in Manhattan, bringing grapes in from high quality locations like California, Oregon and South America. I had to do some real homework. What’s really unique about us is that we’ve created a place where people can learn about wine and enjoy it and share. I eventually thought, “Let’s do a winery and let’s do a music venue.”

Choosing wines vs choosing bands: I wish I could get as many bottles of wine as I got demo tapes at the Knitting Factory. The wine list is much more of a pure, artistic art form while there’s some pragmatism that goes into it. In the Knitting Factory days, it was always a balancing act between pure art and commerce. If we didn’t do so well at the door and the bar, but I really liked it, then that’s all that mattered. I’m a big jazz fan and I feel guilty that I’m not able to support more jazz or avant garde performance, but I can’t do as much cutting edge material here because it can’t sell 300 tickets. People’s palates aren’t usually sophisticated enough to know a cutting edge winemaker, but they’ll know if it’s shit, so in that case the two are a little different.

Membership programs: There’s a very small group of about 150 people who are making their own wine. They get 250 bottles with their name on the bottle. Wired magazine and NBC are doing it as well as some law firms. It’s a unique insight into wine making. Then the other program is called the Vino File membership, which is a rewards program that costs $15 a year and three or four days before we let the world know about a show, we let the Vino File members know. You can buy tickets with no service fees. If you use the Vino File card you can also track which wines you drank and the sommeliers can recommend a wine for you based on your taste.

Future projects: Since 2004, I’ve been doing an annual concert at Carnegie Hall. This March will be the music of The Who. These are benefits for music education for underprivileged children. Springstein showed up and played the encore at one and REM did the same thing. I’m also going to expand to Chicago, I hope, for the next City Winery. Then I hope Paris and London and Shanghai. That’s why I named it City Winery.

Industry Icons: On the music side, Bill Graham really inspired me as a promoter. George Wein from the Newport Jazz Festival. He’s the grandfather of large festivals. As a fellow wannabe megalomaniac, David Geffen has an amazing story. In the wine industry I’m fascinated by these winemakers that are just farmers. They aren’t flashy even though they’re millionaires. They get on a tractor and they get in the dirt and taste it. That, to me, is pretty remarkable.

Go-to places: Now I don’t go out anymore, which is pretty tragic. I could alternate between Nobu and Babbo every night if I could afford it. I dig going to Joe’s Pub to see music, and I do still sneak to the Village Vanguard because there’s nothing like it.

Favorite band: I’m really into singer/songwriters. I lean toward the Regina Spektor world. I could always listen to Radiohead.

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