City Winery Design by Michael Dorf

I did not get accepted into the architecture program in college and ended up with a business and psychology double major, so maybe that is I why I love design more than spreadsheets. However, in the business that I have gravitated to since college, the design of the space is integral to the operations--if not a defining element of the business. A live music venue with a food and beverage operation is one thing, but adding a functioning winery as the unique feature has required some fun integration of all of the elements.

Like any good venue, it’s important to have a utilitarian use of the space to efficiently weave the customer experience into the business functions. Working on our Chicago building has really allowed me to manifest our company vision of bringing wine country into an urban environment. No matter where you are in the facility you should see and feel, if not smell and taste, wine country. Using glass, I want the customers to look into the winery, see the steel fermenting tanks while eating, or be surrounded by French oak barrels in our concert or private event spaces. The natural beauty of a wooden barrel is something we want to feature and the pattern created by racks of barrels can be so cool.


The sexy romantic curvatures of barrels and bottles are featured and emphasized throughout the space. They also serve as inspirational curves for other design elements more subtly added to the floor layout. From using bottles as lighting to simple barrels for tables, we are trying to balance authentic wine themes without getting too Disneyland-ish.

When building New York, I was very inspired by a photo I saw in an Austrian magazine about a wine bar in Vienna, which we borrowed for our staircase wall. It worked so well curved along the stairs in NY, that we brought an almost identical staircase into the Chicago design. The green glass bottles, the cubical enclosure, all remind of a wine cellar, but the empty green translucent glass and upright bottles clearly indicate this is for show and not functional.

The NY and Chicago buildings share turn-of-the-century architectural skeletons, which encapsulate our essential look and feel. Large wooden columns and beams, along with red brick are features we have sought as they invoke a cross between old world European sensibilities with California wine country. There is something very warm about large timbers taken from trees that started growing the 1700's and bringing them back to life with sandblasting away 100 years of multiple coats of paint or plaster.


The old brick and the use of arches helps invoke a real winery feel. Perhaps all winery designers—from Argentina to California have been inspired by Italian and Old Spanish wineries. Archways create a mental connection to a cellar or cave—which then leads the mind to connect to wine. In our Chicago location, we have opened up several doorways and put in multiple arches. We were also very lucky to have found some great Polish masons whose craftsmanship is really evident in all these arches.

We even repurposed the old Chicago firebrick from all of these new openings to wrap the structural steel columns in the new construction section—which contrast elegantly with the more modern glass building. This is helping enhance the feeling of classic style; even giving the impression the new brick piers are supporting the structure.


I am very excited we were able to salvage all the old wood that was in the original building as a mezzanine in their warehouse and turn this into 160 tabletops. The old white oak is 3 inches thick, has gorgeous grain and texture, material you just can’t get anymore. Some of the old flooring went into the façade of our new fireplace. Of course, reusing all the old brick was obvious. All in all, we have repurposed most of the original building materials.

We built a 30-foot living green wall along Randolph Street to separate the old white terracotta facade from the new glass structure. I saw a beautiful living wall outside of a museum in Paris a few years ago and this inspired the idea of having this vertical wall of grasses, plants, and vines as a transition between the other materials, as well as showing our respect for the importance of earth, soils, and plants--given we are a winery making fruits from the vines.

green wall

We are working again with two friends who are very creative artists. One is Kfir Ziv, an Israeli photographer who earns a living with fashion shoots, but is true artist capturing details and blowing them up large—from falafel to water flowing or splashing. I was very moved with his work and commissioned a mural for NY in 2008. Together we developed a setting of some wine bottles and created a flow of wine and blew the shots up large as murals. The colors, the imagery, and unique angle captures a very modern feel that connects wine and art perfectly. For Chicago, we took the same base photos and recomposed them in a way to fit above our main bar in the restaurant. The one twist for Chicago is we are added a glass window out of the top of the bottle.


Liz Galbraith is a college friend and she and her husband Ephraim Paul have created a very successful lamp, rug, and curtain firm called Galbraith & Paul in Philadelphia. They create a variety of unique patterns for products that are now going into a variety of hospitality locations from Four Season Hotels to Starbucks. They have a beautiful olive green leafy vine pattern we have for our lampshades in the bars as well as a cranberry-colored circle pattern for our lovely velvet curtains. The curtains invoke a feeling of champagne bubbles to me, which are perfect for us.


We use bottles in some of our lighting in New York. The bottles with no bottom came from a catalogue to be used as candleholders, but I thought they would make great hanging lamps to be seen from the outside looking in. I wanted a whole bunch of them hanging in a random pattern, which we achieved in NY.

bottle lampsIn Chicago, since we have 30-foot tall curtain wall of glass with the dramatic entrance, I thought I would borrow a little audacious theme from the Wynn Hotel in Vegas with its enlarged flowers, and use the bottle idea for some large hanging chandeliers. I brought the idea of an 8-foot-tall bottle to a bottle maker we found who uses a glass factory in Europe for oversized bottles -- these are not Jeraboams or ebekenezers but something like 150-gallons (three barrels) worth of wine sized bottles. They don't have a name because the size is too dysfunctional to actually be a real wine bottle! The first bid per bottle was like $30,000 in glass, so I found a cool fiberglass artist who gave us a much better deal. These are really dramatic looking.

bottle makingcorks


In keeping with the theme of circles, I have always loved the look of putting hundreds of corks together creating a pattern. Even before opening City Winery, I glued a few hundred on a 2 foot circle of plywood to consider for some tables—did not work so well. But in Chicago, we have made some 3, 4, and 5-foot circles that are inverted and hang from the ceiling in the music venue with lights above them. This serves as a dual purpose of being a “cork cloud” with subtle up lighting for the ceiling, but also the cork side facing down serves as an acoustical treatment for the room.

Q&A with founder michael dorf:

What is the philosophy behind City Winery?

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What Role does Music Play?

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Can you describe some menu options?

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What will City Winery have for meeting planners especially?

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What do other City Winery patrons say about the venue?

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Can you give me detail on the design elements?

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