A crew of workers was scurrying around City Winery Nashville, laying down wood floors and unloading tables and chairs, when I arrived for a tour Wednesday morning. The music venue-cum-working winery debuted last night, in a limited fashion, as an official venue for the Americana Music Festival.
The restaurant, which confirmed its entry into Nashville last August, will host its grand opening on Oct. 1.
City Winery Founder Michael Dorf, dressed in blue jeans, sneakers, and a ball cap, was among those scurrying around. He and his senior management team, all in town for the soft opening, were at the venue cleaning up into the early hours Wednesday morning.
“The encouragement is something I haven’t felt in any of the other [four City Winery] locations,” Dorf said of Nashville. “Our neighbors are going, ‘it’s so great you’re coming. We don’t need another music venue but we need your music venue.’”
Dorf, now in his early 50’s, made his name in music as founder of New York City’s famed venue The Knitting Factory. That club, a small space opened in 1987, catered to avant-garde jazz and rock acts, but City Winery Nashville, a sprawling 30,000 square foot renovated warehouse in SoBro, is targeting a different clientele.
“We are really a listening room,” said Dorf. “We’re focused on the seated listener, which works really well with the fan who has had a knee replacement.”
He was being tongue-in-cheek, but only slightly. Serving a full dinner menu of locally sourced food and over 400 wines (poured exclusively in Riedel glassware), City Winery aims to fill a gap in the music venue business. Doff wants to offer a higher-end concert going experience to people more like him: music fans who have either aged out of the raucous, late-night, standing-only music venues, or simply don’t want that.
“It’s for people who want to have a luxurious concert experience, who want a sight line and want to sit,” said Dorf. “In truth, we think we’ve built a better mousetrap.”
The acts he’s recruiting –Marketa Irglova (‘Once’), Macy Gray, and The Wood Brothers all in October, for example – fit a more intimate space. In Nashville, the music venue will seat between 300-325 people.
The main restaurant, split over two floors, will seat aroundt 125 people, with additional outdoor patio space. The full menu, which Dorf described as “wine-inspired, globally-influenced, and locally-sourced,” will be available in the music venue as well as the restaurant portion.
“This is the best looking room from a venue standpoint of the four [City Winery locations],” Dorf told me, standing on a second-story VIP balcony, overlooking the main floor music venue. “For me, it’s the manifestation of the mix of winery and music that hasn’t happened yet.”
The other three City Winery locations are in New York City, Chicago, and Napa Valley. From where we are standing on the balcony, you can see both the stripped-down City Winery stage and into the future working winery, shielded behind a sound-proof glass wall.
The winery won’t be fully operational until fall 2015, when the restaurant will bring in 100 tons of grapes from roughly 25 wineries in California, Oregon and Washington, with plans to purchase some fruit locally as well, for its first big crush.
More than 14 varietals of wine will be produced at City Winery Nashville, served from its on-tap system, which Dorf considers one of the restaurant’s most unique selling points. The wine is preserved in stainless steel kegs stored in temperature-controlled rooms, and poured via a tap system at the bar. He estimates that about 70 percent of the wine by the glass sold at City Winery is from the tap system, although the restaurant also has a 400 bottle wine list.
Located at 609 Lafayette Street, tucked behind the Rescue Mission in the part of SoBro dubbed “Pie Town,” City Winery is opening in one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in an already fast-growing city.
Like most expansions into Nashville, that growth is part of what attracted Dorf here. He looks at metrics like demographics, the culinary scene, the wine culture (it turns out that Nashville has some of the largest home wine collections in the country), and the number of other new building projects. Dorf has learned that in Nashville, construction workers and sheet rock are hard to find these days.
“Nashville was a pretty easy choice for me,” he said, also citing the music industry. His long-term plan is to open about 30 to 40 City Wineries to create a network of venues across the country that artists could tour. Although he’s developing signature, replicable details — the tap system, barrel-stave bars, a proven menu that pairs well with wine — he wants to retain local color. In Nashville, for example, nearby Isle of Printing has produced a signature wine-bottle mural.
In Nashville, Dorf also had local investors, a “varied” group of 15 people. Purchase price included, City Winery will cost about $7.5 million to get up and running in Nashville. According to the New York Times, Dorf raised $5 million to open the first City Winery in Manhattan, which paid out investors about $1 million last year.
“After I got New York running and proved it was a financially viable model, we’ve been able to get some larger investors to grow like we want to,” he said. “But always having those local stakeholders will be key.”
What cities might be next to join the City Winery club? Boston and Atlanta are his top two contenders.
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