Manhattan’s new City Winery lets amateurs make wine like pros. Plus, it’s a world-class music venue with great food. Writer Gerri Hirshey hangs out with singer Suzanne Vega and Spanish wine superstar Alvaro Palacios.

By Food & Wine
Updated March 31, 2015

On the oak stage at Manhattan’s new City Winery, singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega is chatting amiably with Alvaro Palacios, the mercurial superstar of Spanish winemaking, over a few glasses of red and plates of smoky grilled chicken skewers served with hummus and a harissa sauce. “Do you play?” she asks, noticing Palacios admiring her guitar.

“Some flamenco,” he admits, “but only with the workers in the vineyard. And they’re all much better than me.”

© Cedric Angeles

From the side of the stage, City Winery’s owner, Michael Dorf, catches this exchange and looks very pleased. “I just love this,” he says, almost to himself. He should—bringing wine and food and music together was his goal from the start. City Winery, which opened in January in Soho, is an ambitious new spin on the urban-winemaking trend. Part music venue, part restaurant, it stretches for nearly half a city block, in a 140-year-old industrial building that Dorf managed to lease from Trinity Church. He spent two years getting the project off the ground, and he seems relieved that the doors are finally open.

Vega is booked to play here, with her occasional studio collaborator Lenny Kaye, as part of a series Dorf refers to as Pairings—including singer Jill Sobule with comedian Julia Sweeney, and jazz innovators Medeski, Martin and Wood with Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. Palacios, on the other hand, dropped by to see to the details of a wine dinner he’ll be hosting here in a few days.

© Cedric Angeles

What makes City Winery groundbreaking is that it’s a music venue, a restaurant (with a menu of wine-friendly, Mediterranean-inspired small plates from Andres Barrera, an alum of Brooklyn’s beloved Franny’s), and a working winery. Barrels, tanks and sorting tables are visible from the street through huge windows. During harvest, passengers in taxis headed downtown can see workers unloading bins of grapes; workers can feel the subway rumble under their feet as they fill barrels with newly fermented wine. Dorf is quick to say that he’s benefited from the model of San Francisco’s Crushpad winery, the progenitor of the urban-winemaking movement, as well as from the advice of Crushpad’s founder, Michael Brill.

Dues-paying City Winery members get a barrel of wine each year—the equivalent of about 260 bottles, at a cost of roughly $30 to $35 each—or a one-sixth barrel “share.” They choose the grape variety, the vineyard source, even the type of barrel oak, and they participate in the winemaking process, whether that means stopping by one day to help sort grapes or spending every free moment punching down fermenting fruit. Head winemaker David Lecomte, a Rhône valley native with French viticulture degrees and a 14-year career making wine everywhere from France to China, is there to help at every step.

This is a giant leap for Dorf, who in 1986 staked his bar mitzvah money on the Knitting Factory, a dilapidated downtown office–turned–avant-garde music venue. “We drove the upstairs tenants straight out of the building the first night Sonic Youth played,” he recalls. These days, “I’m older, I’ve got kids, and the best evening I could spend with my wife and friends needs to fire on all cylinders”—great music, great wine and great food.

© Cedric Angeles

Onstage, Vega and Palacios are now snacking on warm pita stuffed with roasted lamb, which gets zing from a piquant tomato-ginger compote, and small pizzas topped with mushrooms and a luscious goat cheese béchamel. When asked if City Winery will succeed, Palacios says, “I think it’s about the wine list. It has to be smart, magnificent, huge.” And it is, with more than 300 terrific boutique wines from around the world.

Vega swirls a Rioja—the 2005 Palacios Remondo La Montesa, its flavors all wild cherry and Mediterranean earth. The Riedel stemware is pristine: Dorf’s dishwashing room uses superheated water instead of detergent, which can leave off-smelling residue. “It’s cool to have a venue dedicated to wine,” Vega says. She’s enough of a wine buff that her backstage contract rider requires it, and while touring in France recently, she blogged about her discoveries. She takes another sip of the La Montesa. “I’m not fussy,” she says, “but this is heaven.”

Gerri Hirshey is the author of Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music.