Michael Dorf and The Philosophy of Indulgence
As a 23-year-old entrepreneur, Michael Dorf founded the iconic Knitting Factory in 1987. It soon became well-known as the cutting-edge venue for jazz and rock music. Dorf was also an early pioneer in the digital music realm and developed Knit Media, Knitting Factory Records, and produced numerous music festivals, including the first live-streamed festival, The Macintosh Music Festival.
In addition, he has produced an annual fundraiser series raising over $1.5 million for music education programs, including the American Symphony Orchestra’s Music Notes, Church Street School for Music and Art, Young Audiences New York, Fixing Instruments for Kids in Schools, Little Kids Rock and the Center for Arts Education.
With decades of experience running the Knitting Factory, Dorf gathered valuable insights that he used to expand his vision. Combining his skills in producing live events with his passion for fantastic food and wine, he founded City Winery on Varick Street in New York City in 2008. He expanded, and today City Winery has locations in New York, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Montgomery, NY, in the Hudson Valley.
When asked what first brought him upstate, Dorf explains that he was drawn to rock climbing in “The Gunks” – the Shawangunks, a premier rock climbing area outside New Paltz.
“In the late 1980s, I discovered climbing in the ‘Gunks.’ It wasn’t that crowded back in the day; now, it’s unfathomable. I wanted a release on the weekends. I was also looking for a place to get married, ended up buying a house, got married in the backyard, and met a lot of like-minded weekenders, some of whom now live up here permanently. I loved not being in the Hamptons, Berkshires, or the New Jersey shore but in a place that was only 90 minutes from the GW bridge. It was like a secret, surrounded by organic farms, great produce and restaurants. Being able to go hiking, biking, climbing or skydiving, it was our own little playground with good people without the Hamptons crowd.”
Today, Dorf has a home off of Minnewaska State Park and has been there for 30 years. His deep love and appreciation of the Hudson Valley inspired him to expand City Winery upstate. Dorf explains, “As we grew, we needed more wine to serve. We were moving our NYC location from Varick Street to the Hudson River location at 11th Avenue and realized we couldn’t build a big enough winery in NYC. We’d been looking in the Hudson Valley for a while. The urban facility was a backdrop to great concerts. I wanted this one to have a focus around great winemaking and a special events space to party around.”
With an eye for restoring historic buildings, The Montgomery location captured his attention on several levels. He explains, “When I found the Montgomery Mill, it had a sign that said ‘Factory.’ I thought that it was a sign literally, figuratively and karmically. The buildings were so cool but in need of love and care. I saw the potential and turned it into what it is today. We opened in the deepest part of the pandemic, which was not the best time to do a gathering business, but it felt really right in terms of the space. I feel like a steward of this historic building that has great roots and history in the area and that we’ve done a great job of adaptive re-use of the property, which is part of our company’s DNA. We adapt and reuse old locations. That’s what I seek out.”
Now Dorf is leading a hotel project called The Milk Factory in Walden, NY, geographically located on the 84-87 interstate corridor from Newburgh and Beacon. Closely watching the increase of people moving and traveling upstate, exacerbated during the pandemic, Dorf was aware of the need for more high-end hotels. He noticed a dilapidated Milk Factory that, as a builder and restorer of old spaces, caught his eye.
“I’d been admiring these buildings. I discovered that it was the Borden Condensed Milk Factory, built 20 years before City Winery Montgomery. The brickwork is unbelievable, but fire damage from the 70s made it look like ancient ruins. The roof was caved in and trees were growing out of it. It was quite a sight. It had been sold to someone else, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he says.
“After opening in Montgomery and seeing how people loved that and how the pandemic accelerated people moving to the Hudson Valley, where housing became scarce, I became aware of the desire for higher-end accommodation. I kept riding my bike on the trail between my house and Montgomery, thinking this was such a cool property. It didn’t seem like the person who bought it was doing anything, so I got aggressive and was able to acquire it from him. I thought a boutique hotel, winery and distillery would be great,” he adds.
The Milk Factory will have 46 rooms, a winery, restaurant, distillery, and event spaces. Dorf envisions it as mid-luxury, not quite as expensive as nearby Wildflower Farms, and will create an urban village using the existing brick. He explains his inspiration.
“In 1875, this was the hub of the milk industry on the east coast. They were loading up railcars with milk, and sending it to Boston, NYC and Philly. There was a railroad track going right through the buildings. So we’re turning that hub into a beautiful cobblestone street surrounded by the hotel and all of our activities, which we’re calling the ‘Milky Way.” It’s going to feel like old Europe, which is what inspired John Borden when it was built. We’re going to build a connection off the rail trail with an elevated spur right to a bike concierge where you can drop your bike safely, eat and drink and go on your way, or if you’re a guest, stay. We’re really excited about the concept,” he continues.
After so many years working in the industry, Dorf says he doesn’t have any more plans to expand, at least not in the Hudson Valley. However, City Winery has properties in Detroit, Columbus, St.Louis, Pittsburg, and Grand Central Terminal, and by 2024 City Winery will have just under 20 locations. He recognizes his company’s tremendous growth.
“It’s a crazy time to be growing with rising interest rates. We know there’s a pending recession and a housing and construction correction about to hit. The world’s in a weird place, so it’s hard to know, but I know that our brand is strong, people like to drink wine, and people really like the authenticity of what we do and how we do it,” he says.
So how does Dorf do it? “In order to have the tenacity to stay in it, you’ve got to love what you do. If not, you won’t give it everything. Life is short. For those of us who work in the arts and love the adrenaline exchanged between a performer and their audience, hopefully, that can make the world a better place.” he answers.
With so many locations, City Winery serves as a circuit for national touring musicians and helps support up-and-coming musicians. “There are opportunities for emerging acts like getting an opening slot or to appear in the smaller, second rooms, like the loft. Selling that out a few times, maybe they could move up to the larger rooms. Lately, we’ve been doing comedy. Some of the bigger comics prefer the smaller rooms. Eventually, all the established acts will be gone, and the opening acts will become headliners. We recognized that it’s important to work with emerging acts.” he says.
So what does Dorf like to do for fun when he’s not working? “If I don’t go on a five-mile hike at least once a week, my brain will blow up. I need it for medicinal and balancing reasons. I have fun doing it. I also like to cook, golf, travel, read, and I like my family sometimes,” he jokes.
Having spent so much time living, working and exploring in the Hudson Valley, Dorf is well acquainted with its nooks and crannies and has favorite spots and activities. “I love Minnewaska state park. It’s so big and explorable with so much wildlife. I love riding bikes. Both are great and plausible up there. I like antiquing from Montgomery to Hudson. When my kids were younger, we’d go apple and pumpkin picking annually. The food options are really great. I love going over to Rhinebeck; there are some fantastic restaurants there. The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) is great to visit,” he adds.
As someone who counted Lou Reed as a friend and has produced a series of fundraising concerts at New York’s Beacon Theater with some of the biggest names in music, Dorf says he is ironically out of the loop with modern music. “I’ll admit I don’t listen to a lot of new undiscovered music. When I listen now, I love deep cuts by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Little Feat, Led Zeppelin, and I listen to Dylan all the time!”
He also has his favorites when it comes to wine. “What I drink is (a) a lot and (b) everything. If you forced me into a desert island and could only take one bottle from my cellar, I’d probably go with a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, which is the greatest terroir. I’d probably go back 14-16 years and get a DRC (Domaine Romanée Conti), but that’s a fantasy. I love the Pinot that’s being grown in the Willamette Valley. I love understanding soil and terroir and how a region and place affects wine.”
But Dorf is no simple hedonist. His fundraising concert series has raised over 1.5 million dollars for music education, and he cares deeply about his employees. The COVID pandemic hugely impacted his industry and continues to impact his current state of mind.
“Having to let go or furlough 1,300 employees was the single most difficult moment of my life. Not knowing what our future was, was the start of a very challenging time in the gathering business. The challenges that we’re still facing from the pandemic are enormous. People outside the gathering and service industries have no idea how hard it is to survive. And we’ve still got post-pandemic issues like labor shortages. So we’re deeply challenged. I don’t feel like I’ve had a day off since March 2020. So it’s been a very taxing, age-accelerating time during the last two and a half years,” he says.
“As an entrepreneur, someone trying to be a good community, and a family leader, those challenges become stimulating tools to try and harness. I think I did that to some extent by taking strong leadership positions. In Nashville, we were the first and only venue for weeks requiring vaccine checks, and we got beat up for it. It has not stopped, and we haven’t had a chance to breathe. I’d say it’s been deeply taxing on me and the surviving members of the team. We want to get to the promised land, but it seems to keep getting pushed further away,” he adds.
How far Michael Dorf will keep expanding City Winery and his other projects remains to be seen. But he’s published a book titled “Indulge Your Senses,” which exemplifies the philosophy by which he runs his businesses. For those who seek experiences that combine great food, wine, and music, the ventures of Michael Dorf are worth watching.
Contributor Michael Cobb is a writer, musician, and multimedia producer.
+ + +
CITY WINERY HUDSON VALLEY
23 Factory Street
> Purchase Michael Dorf’s Book HERE
WEDNESDAY-THURSDAY 4-9 PM
FRIDAY 4-10 PM
SATURDAY 12-10 PM
SUNDAY 11:30-9 PM