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City Winery caters to mature fans who’d rather sip than slam-dance

City Winery 1200 W. Randolph Chicago's newest music venue is under constructischeduled open August. Painting continues near stairwell thleads mezzanine

City Winery at 1200 W. Randolph, Chicago's newest music venue, is under construction and scheduled to open in August. Painting continues near the stairwell that leads to the mezzanine that overlooks the lobby and restaurant. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 6, 2012 6:07AM



Like fine wines, music fans grow more distinguished with age.

Unless you like the Pogues.

For the mature music lover, the City Winery will be a venue heavy on the mellow and light on the moshing. Reborn from a century-old food distribution warehouse, City Winery is nicely assisted living for those who have survived the Aragon, the Congress, the Double Door, Metro and other local standing-room music venues.

After a charity sneak preview event Aug. 11, the club at 1200 W. Randolph formally opens Aug. 15 with a five-night, sold-out stand from comic Lewis Black. Americana artist Dave Alvin will be the first music act to appear at the City Winery, singing his ballads of dusty backroads and cheap motel rooms on Aug. 21.

Modeled after the popular City Winery in New York City, it’s the creation of Michael Dorf, who co-opened the iconic Knitting Factory in 1987 in Manhattan. Experimentalists like Gil Scott-Heron, Bill Frisell and Sonic Youth played that room, which was very much a dive.

“The Knitting Factory was the first business I ran,” Dorf said. “I made a ton of mistakes and made a lot of friends. From a music standpoint I understand what we want to do differently today. But at the time I wanted to listen to the Violent Femmes in a very crowded room. I wanted avant-garde jazz and I wanted to push the envelope. That’s what my peers were into.

“Now my knees don’t work as well. I’m 50 years old. I’m very selfish. I want to sit and drink wine in a real glass. I’ve gotten very spoiled. I want Riedel Crystal, which is what we have here. I want to eat food. I want to know where I’m going to sit. And I want to have that all in a 31/2-hour moment.”

Think Ravinia-in-a-box.

The City Winery’s buildout includes a warm music room that seats 300 people in three tiers (main floor, seats raised to the right of the bar and VIP in a mezzanine section two feet higher than the rest of the room) and offers full-on food and drink menu service. An outdoor patio that seats 175.

A separate restaurant seats 170, which can cater to folks not necessarily attending a concert. About 15 tap wines are produced on site, because this is, after all, a winery in the city. The winery features 48 white wine barrels and 200 red wine barrels, all temperature controlled. The City Winery also includes a wine list of more than 400 bottles.

Reclaimed white oak from the original building is deployed throughout, including on restaurant chairs and tables. Original archways have been restored, and the restaurant walls are painted sage green. Six huge fiberglass wine bottles serve as chandeliers. A spiral staircase leads to a mezzanine for private events that can cater between 50 and 75 people. A second kitchen is upstairs.

“I’ve attended shows at Ravinia, and there’s an incredible overlap with what we’re trying to do at City Winery,” said Dorf, whose Chicago-born grandfather Sol Dorf founded the Milwaukee Biscuit Co. “We want to combine culinary with great culture. There is a passion in Chicago that is very much like our passion in New York.” John Fuente (Spruce, Zinfandel, Fog City Diner) is chef.

Dorf and his staff are calling the Chicago operation City Winery 2.0.

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Veteran Chicago concertgoer Norm Winer, program director at WXRT-FM (93.1), notes that dining is a rarity in Chicago live music venues, saying, “George’s supper club on Kinzie is the only place I can remember where you ate during a show.” George’s was in the current Gilt Bar space, 230 W. Kinzie, during the late 1980s and featured acts like Jerry Butler and David Johansen as Buster Poindexter in cabaret-style setting.

“It struck me odd to be holding silverware while people were performing,” Winer said. “But City Winery will be an impressive venue. I’ve been on their mailing list for several years, and it is mostly established artists that Chicago has always supported.”

WXRT is a City Winery sponsor, along with WFMT, WBEZ, WNUR, WDCB and CHIRP RADIO.

“Chicago is a different situation,” Winer said. “There’s consistency here. There’s all sorts of options for people who support the music scene, whether you’re standing up and rocking at FitzGerald’s [in Berwyn] or sitting in the pristine acoustics of S.P.A.C.E. [in Evanston] or Park West, which is the longest-standing comfortable place. Being in a romantic, pristine setting to enjoy music at City Winery will be great for a lot of people. We in Chicago have aged while supporting live music. As a concertgoer, the legs are first to go. But we’re in condition for that. We grew up on funky blues clubs and corner rock clubs.”

The City Winery in New York opened on Dec. 31, 2008, with a Joan Osborne concert in a former South Village printing house.

“I’m a downtowner,” Dorf said. “At the same time it’s hard to find a large building that has a loading dock. We have a peculiar need of grapes coming in and bands coming in. We can’t function without a loading dock. Carnegie Hall doesn’t have a loading dock. You have to double-park on 56th Street.” That’s why Dorf liked the warehouse feel of West Randolph Street.

He explained, “I looked hard in Toronto, Boston, London, Miami and Vegas. Barcelona. The mayor of Tel Aviv [Israel] has been courting us and it will happen someday. But Chicago made sense. There’s a great music scene here and a great tourist scene here. There’s a ton of people on Randolph Street.

“It’s a culinary scene and we’re trying to push the connection of music and arts with the food and wine experience.”

The Chicago City Winery will expand on the New York experience.

“Our first grapes arrived the same week Lehman Brothers went bankrupt,” Dorf said of the largest bankuptcy in U.S. history. “In 2008 I thought I was going to sell a lot of barrels to bankers and that was going to be the way we would run our winery. It did work until the bankers stopped spending money in the fall of 2008 — and we had 300 barrels of great wine that we had just made. In the spring of 2009 we figured out a way to circumvent the bottling, go straight into a tap system and serve our customers fresh wine straight from the barrel. People really responded to that, and it is a very green way to serve wine.”

City Winery will make small batch boutique imprints, such as a possible “Randolph Street Wine.” The winery will also do private labels. Grapes come from California and Oregon. “As much as I want to buy fruit from Illinois and Indiana, it’s not the greatest soil and climate,” Dorf said. “In the spring we go to Argentina and Chile. We buy from really good vineyards.”

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The July 22 Kenny Loggins concert at the City Winery in New York was a perfect pairing: what seemed like a 20-minute boomer sing-along version of “Celebrate Me Home” with fine wine.

Seeing Loggins wasn’t my first choice, but scheduling prohibited me from seeing Ronnie Spector’s “Beyond the Beehive,” the New York City debut of Spector’s personal stories, photos, videos andsongs.

The City Winery in New York has a warehouse look with exposed brick punctuated by three large round mirrors along the bar. Department-store-size windows front Varick Street, and about a dozen fans watched the sold-out show from the sidewalk. Loggins’ 1980s light show was distracting for a 300-seat venue, but acoustics were superb. Meyer Sound Laboratories (Grateful Dead, etc.) out of Berkeley, Calif., does sound for both venues.

The City Winery in New York checks in at 21,000 square feet while Dorf said the City Winery Chicago is 33,000 square feet. It cost $5 million to open the City Winery in New York, and the figure for the Chicago opening is around $9 million. Tickets for Loggins weren’t cheap ($75-$100).

I had been running around the city and hadn’t had time for dinner. During the concert I ordered hibiscus glazed chicken with cucumber, summer squash and almond-apricot couscous ($17). Other fans were eating during the show. In Chicago, there’s food at the House of Blues Back Porch Stage and at places like Dick’s Last Resort. This was a new experience. I don’t think I’d eat if I wanted to really concentrate on the music. That would be sensory overload.

But this was “Footloose.”

I know very little about wine, and my server was too busy for me to advise on the difference between Albarino white wine from Spain ($14) and red Teroldego Rotaliano ($15) from Italy.

So I went with something I know: a cold Dixie Jazz Amber Light ($7).

Acts like Steve Earle and Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers are in the City Winery rotation Their fans drink Jack ’n’ Coke more than fancy wine.

“Steve Earle stopped drinking wine a while ago,” Dorf said with a smile. “He makes a lot of comments to that effect. He considers City Winery his home in New York now. We’re a few blocks away from him and we’ve probably done 20 shows with him. We are not trying to push the intimidation component of a wine list. We break it down, we offer tasting flights so you can learn about stuff without trying to get too academic.

“What is remarkable in New York is that 80 percent of our nightly sales is wine, even though we have a full beer and alcohol list with an amazing Scotch and Cognac selection. But we still sell wine to Ian Hunter fans. People scratch their heads. I’d love to say we’re booking music that appeals to wine drinkers, but it is much more than that. But you can’t program people’s consumption patterns. We’re booking what works in this environment. I like that and [City Winery booker] Colleen [Miller, formerly booker of the Old Town School of Folk Music] likes that.

“On some levels we set the parameters of what we were looking for in New York.”

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Besides comic Black, popmeister Howie Day is sold out for Aug. 23 at City Winery Chicago, as are the Aug. 26 and 27 dates with Lindsey Buckingham, the fussy artist who banned cell phone photos during his most recent Chicago appearance at the Vic. Like the New York operation, the City Winery will have a klezmer brunch between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sundays with live music from the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and others. The City Winery emphasizes folk-roots bookings (Gary Louris of the Jayhawks Oct. 4, Rosanne Cash Nov. 18, Mavis Staples Nov. 23-24) over the edgy jazz that Dorf was known for with the Knitting Factory, although seeing Esperanza Spalding and Radio Music Society Oct. 1-3 in the intimate setting will be special.

Tickets are being sold online until the Aug. 15 opening, when tickets can also be purchased at the City Winery box office, waiving the 10 percent online service fee. Guests can choose their own seats online or at the box office. City Winery also offers a VinoFile Premier Membership, which also waives ticket fees and includes $5 valet parking (usually $10), 48-hour advance notice on all events and other perks for $75 a year.

“Look, I was 23, 24 when we started the Knitting Factory,” Dorf said. “We didn’t make a lot of money. Where we actually started making money was in Europe. We started our record company, we were doing tours and festivals. I was going to Europe a lot and I started drinking wine in Europe. I became a fan. In 2004, after I sold my interest in the Knitting Factory, I made a barrel of wine in California. There was something very wholesome and back-to-the-roots about that. It was an eye-opening experience.”



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