City Winery owner Michael Dorf has no qualms about diving into a tight, competitive Napa entertainment market and competing head-to-head with the Uptown Theatre for similar acts.
"I believe we built a better mousetrap," he says. "The question is really for the artist: Where would they prefer to play?"
The difference is in the details: City Winery, which opens April 10 with Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn in the $2.5-million renovated Napa Valley Opera House, holds 300 seats. The Uptown has 850 seats.
The audiences for both venues skew toward the baby boomer end of the age range, with fans flocking to see roots, Americana, blues and classic rock artists more often than not.
But the biggest difference lies in the experience. At the Uptown, you can have a beer or glass of wine to go with the show. At City Winery, you'll be tapping into barrels from all over Napa Valley and choosing from a locally sourced menu crafted by chef Joseph Panarello, who arrives fresh from Izzy's Place in the East Bay.
"We're shooting for that higher-end experience," Dorf says. "But I don't think it's ostentatious."
Much like Yoshi's jazz clubs in San Francisco and Oakland, cabaret table seating runs up to the stage. Fans can eat dinner while watching the concert or arrive just for the show and order drinks at their table. There's also a separate restaurant dining area and back patio if you're not into the music, a private dining room and a bar with 35 wine barrels on tap.
A week before Thursday's grand opening, Dorf admits he still has the usual jitters. "You start worrying about, did I remember to invite this person or that person? And will anybody come?"
But he's been through this before. When the first City Winery opened in New York in 2007, it was designed as more of an East Coast crush pad for rich bankers who wanted to make their own wine. When the economy tanked, they were left with thousands of gallons of wine and no one to drink it. So they tapped into the barrels, literally, like a brewer taps a keg, and booked live music to go with the wine.
The musical quotient wasn't much of a leap when you consider Dorf had turned the Knitting Factory into one of the top live music venues in Manhattan in the 1990s. It has since grown into a much larger company whose operations include tours, artist management, events and music production as well as other venues. Now his business is evolving with his own tastes.