Chicago has long been known for its trendsetting music scene. Today, the city boasts music venues on what seems like every block. From bars with small stages to large-scale venues that host big name acts, the Windy City has the music scene covered.
Now, Chicago is home to a new style of concert venue: a much classier one than most. With quite an impressive line-up for the latter part of 2012, City Winery will surely attract the middle-aged crowd with acts like Lindsay Buckingham, Waco Brothers and Howie Day; but there’s something there for the winos-in-training, too.
City Winery started in New York by Michael Dorf, founder of the Knitting Factory. After determining his love for wine and music could mix, the venue opened up in Manhattan, but his roots are all Midwest. City Winery is more than just a music venue, as they host wine programs, tastings and events.
Nathan Benditzon, the venue’s director of sales and marketing has high hopes for more City Wineries in the future. Although it’s unlikely his ideal artist of choice will make a stint at the 300 capacity concert hall – Prince – there’s a lot to be excited about after the doors opened August 20.
“The owner has already set his sights on other cities. He’s already been courted by Las Vegas, and the mayor of Tel Aviv wants to have a venue out there,” Benditzon says. “He looked at other areas before coming to Chicago, too. He’s based in New York now, but he’s really a Midwesterner and grew up in Milwaukee, so Chicago was a natural fit for a second location.”
The venue was originally slated to hug the not-yet-opened Target in the West Loop, but a twist of fate had Target nabbing the entire property, and the winery landing on the corner of Randolph and Racine. The industrial area of the neighborhood is much more fitting for the venue, as prospective neighbors would have been the UIC Pavilion and Hubbard Street Dance Center, and the crowds of college students. Dorf also looked at having the location in the Loop, but that would have made it more difficult to have such an open space, or a mezzanine overlooking the skyline.
Featuring lofted ceilings that put other gorgeous venues like Lincoln Hall to shame, the decor of City Winery is a perfect match to the neighborhood. Gritty bricks stand tall, surrounding the wide-open patio, and brightly-colored greenery separates the space from the outside world. The floor-to-high-ceiling windows connect the outside area to the inside, and make the front bar warm and inviting. From the outside, windows give every passerby an inside look into the winery — because, of course, they make their own wine.
Much of the interior of City Winery is sustainable. The golden brown wood tables were all made from wood refurbished from the previous structure, and the bricks were reclaimed as well. The high arches that welcome guests into the dining area are similar to those from the previous building, and others around the venue are originals. Being on Restaurant Row, many expect each industrial building to stick out from the next, and City Winery has proved to be successful. Massive wine bottles hang from the ceiling as lighting, and if you look closely, there are remnants of wine bottles all around. Fixtures dangle from above with wine corks in the concert hall, and the large welcoming sign at the front of the building mimics a wine barrel.
Walking through the dining room, the scent of fruity wine fills the air. The winery itself features fermentation tanks from South Africa, although the venue has not yet started making its own wine. Serving wine from their New York sister venue during the opening process, the bar is stocked with nearly 20 different wines on tap. Instead of the taps coming up from the bar, they act as décor behind the bartender in a meticulous pattern. The variety of wines will change, but picky winos can have their own barrel waiting for them in house — it’ll only cost you $15,000. People can also produce their own custom-designed label for special events. Those who can’t tell the difference between two buck chuck and a $100 bottle need not fret, the venue has multiple price points for its wine. The urban wine country sources its grapes from places like Napa, Calif.; Willamette Valley, Ore.; and Agrelo, Medoza Argentina.
Once the Chicago location starts making its own wine, which is expected to start in a few months, an estimated 100 tons of grapes will be produced each year, equivalent to 100,000 bottles of wine.
Located in the back of the venue, the concert hall is intimate and laid-back. Concert goers chose their seating online, with options for “front row” seating, the VIP viewing area or regular dinning, which – honestly – all offer great views of the stage. Seating is communal in the event space, meaning guests will likely be sitting next to strangers unless their party fills an entire table, adding to the unique concert experience.
Tea light candles flicker on each table giving the room a Jazz club vibe, although much of the much of the music is classic rock. City Winery has plans to host a variety of music styles to their lineup, and don’t seem to show much of a bias. For example, every Sunday the venue hosts a Klezmer Brunch with mostly local acts, among other wine programs accompanied by various music genres. Currently, the roster is filled until January 2013 with guests such as Matthew Sweet, The Sea and Cake and Esperanza Spalding.
To top off the classy experience, the venue offers a new take on the concert T-shirt. Depending on the artist, fans can purchase a bottle of wine endorsed by the act. At the end of August, the Waco Brothers played the music of T. Rex, accompanied by a wine pairing. The British band, known for their outlandish stage presence and goofy persona, took five breaks explaining why each wine was paired with a specific song. The venue will continue to mix quirky programming with delicious wine.
“We’re settling in right now, but we really came out with a bang,” Benditzon says with pride. “We opened up with a huge lineup of artists and we have a ton of wine events and programs. We’re always looking to do new things.”
City Winery is 50/50 music and wine. For them, they go together. Like other artists indulge in stories of whiskey and beer, the artists that come through the winery chose the finer things in life. Let’s hope this springs inspiration for more venues that pride themselves in handcrafted booze – distillery venue, anyone? Cheers.