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New York micro-winery makes its home in the Loop

In the works

City Winery will be on the corner of Monroe and Wabash in the Sullivan Center. It’s slated to open this winter.

The Downtown Seder is at 8 tonight at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. The kosher meal includes four glasses of kosher wine from City Winery and a souvenir Haggadah.

For more on City Winery and the Downtown Seder, go to

Gastropubs and microbreweries have taken Chicago by storm over the past few years. Spirits distilleries are popping up in places like Evanston. So a micro-winery-cum-music-venue in the Loop shouldn’t be a total surprise.

When City Winery opens late this year on the corner of Wabash and Monroe, in the former Carson Pirie Scott building, it will serve wine pressed from West Coast grapes, on tap and fresh from the fermentation tanks.

“We source the grapes from 15 vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Willamette Valley, Oregon, and for a few years now, the trucks have passed right through Chicago, so why not open here?” jokes City Winery founder Michael Dorf, one of New York’s best-known music promoters.

In fact, Dorf’s plans for the Chicago location are much more calculated.

“We’ll use it as our model as we roll out in different cities,” he says.

The man doesn’t just think big, he acts it; 21,000-square-feet big, to be precise. City Winery Chicago will feature 18 tap lines of wine, two wine bars, a 350-person event space downstairs and two private dining rooms with glass walls displaying the winery’s fermentation tanks and barrels.

“There’s nowhere you can go, including the toilets, where you’re not going to feel like you’re in a winery,” he says with a grin.

The winery isn’t scheduled to open until the winter. But Dorf will make his Chicago debut at 8 tonight as host of one of the most intriguing Passover entertainment events, if not the only one: the Downtown Seder.

A tradition in New York City for more than a decade, the multi-cultural performance at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Sidney R. Yates Gallery will feature a mix of Chicago talent and imports from other cities.

Twenty artists — musicians, actors, political figures, comedians and thinkers — will perform their unique interpretation of the classic Passover story. Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel is expected to lead a blessing.

“Originally, it started as a substitute for the family Seder for local artist friends, then it evolved into a public interpretation of the Haggadah through music and the arts,” says Dorf.

In past years, “Dr. Ruth has talked about the Hillel sandwich [made of matzo and bitter herbs], and Lou Reed has been the wise child,” he says.

The kosher Seder meal will be prepared by Chicago chef Laura Frankel of Spertus Kosher Catering and certified by the Chicago Rabbinical Council. (Her recipes for the some of the dishes to be served are below.)

The kosher wine, supervised by the Orthodox Union, will be City Winery’s own, opened and poured by CRC mashgiachs (kashrut supervisors).

Urban roots

A Milwaukee native, Dorf opened his first City Winery in New York in 2008, after a 20-year career as a promoter. In 1987, he launched New York’s consummate venue for independent bands, the Knitting Factory.

Dorf also has a rich background in philanthropy, producing and promoting a long-running series of tribute concerts at Carnegie Hall to benefit music education programs for underprivileged youth.

In 2004, he had a chance to make wine in California. That’s when the connection between art and wine hit him.

“There’s something in the DNA of artists and winemakers,” he says. “Poets have a long history with wine, as do musicians, bands, philosophers, and the connection is quite profound.” Thus was born the City Winery concept.

In his black skull cap, scarf and blue jeans, Dorf, 48, is as much artist as he is businessman.

He beams at the thought of the winery being a stone’s throw from the Art Institute of Chicago.

“That’s what I tell all my artsy-fartsy friends,” he says, almost as a justification for growing his business side.

The move from Dorf’s groundbreaking, loud and grungy music club roots to wine-making seems to parallel his maturation. He is now married with three children, so the nightlife hours, ear-ringing music and floors sticky with spilled beer are a thing of his past.

Dorf calls City Winery the adult version of the concert venue where you can hear great music, sit down,ahave a great meal and make your own wine — or buy it in a barrel, in a bottle or in a glass.

“We are vessel agnostic,” he says. With each vintage selling out consistently, from the 4,000 cases that are bottled to the private-label barrels, it appears his customers are as well.

The right spot

Last spring, Dorf visited Chicago four times, scouring the city with a host of real estate agents in search of the ideal space for his soon-to-be flagship venue.

He checked out buildings in Logan Square, an area he loves; River North, with all its foot traffic, and River West, where he spotted ornamental grapes carved into plaster alongside a former produce warehouse.

“I thought that must really mean something, the grapes and our winery and all,” he says with a self-conscious smile.

He only glanced at the blueprints of the Louis Sullivan-designed building space in late spring, initially feeling that the Loop wasn’t the right location.

“I had been thinking we needed to be in an area where there’s lots of nightclubs, rather than taking a chance downtown,” he says.

But then, real estate development firm Joseph Freed & Associates took him through the magical 1870s building, a classic Chicago School space. Raw as it was, stripped down to the studs, the two-story space stopped him in his tracks.

“I came here and realized that with all of the theaters nearby and Millennium Park, this could really be the home run,” Dorf says.

He saw the value in the ample nearby parking lots, the lines of taxis at the Palmer House Hilton across the street and the proximity to the L, which basically stops right above the Wabash side entrance.

The winery will be sharing a wall with City Target, the major tenant occupying two floors and a whopping 125,000 square feet.

With the increasingly residential population of the Millennium Park neighborhood and generous renovation funding for the historic landmark, Dorf knew this was it.

“We’re right in the heart of it, and it’s great to be part of that,” he says.

Laura Levy Shatkin is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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