How Success Happened for Michael Dorf, Founder of City Winery

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Founder and CEO of City Winery Michael Dorf has a simple reason for the success of his $100 million company: the team. 

City Winery was founded in 2008 and has quickly grown to 12 locations, despite Covid-19. The company recently announced five more locations, which will open in 2022, and another eight locations targeted for 2023. That is a huge rebound for a gathering business coming out of a time of social distancing.

“There is no way to scale what we do without a team of leaders and managers who all know the direction we are heading, and who themselves also feel like owners of the business,” Dorf says, “When you start a second company, you get to think about everything you screwed up in the first go around and make the appropriate adjustments to do it right. It’s quite a luxury.”

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Dorf started his first business, The Knitting Factory, in 1987. It became one of the top music venues and record labels in New York City, but in 2003 he left the company for several reasons including investor challenges, the dot-com bubble and record businesses, among others. He came back in 2004 after starting a concert series to raise funds for music education at Carnegie Hall, a Hebrew school in Tribeca, and made a barrel of wine in California.  

“Essentially in 2004, I drank the Kool-Aid of making wine and wanted to create an urban winery in New York that also included an intimate concert space. Thus, began City Winery.  But I didn’t know how to really make wine myself, I’ve never really operated behind the bar, and I have no real music chops myself. I’ve always needed good people around me who really know what they are doing,” Dorf says.

When he started City Winery in 2008, it was clear that a well-oiled and experienced team was needed. Not just a group of people with great resumes in their respective specialties — but a group of people all rowing in the same direction, communicating effectively, while dividing and conquering.

Without the budgets of financial institutions or larger corporations to hire speakers and facilitators, Dorf considered exactly what he wanted to accomplish and went down his own path.

“I thought about the name ‘retreat’ and said to myself, What a dumb name for what we want to do. We are moving forward, not backward. I wanted to bring the team to a safe location, to talk about mission, vision and our path to the top. As a mountaineer, I thought ‘Basecamp’ was the perfect metaphor. Here, sitting with our team we can plan our ascent to the summit, discuss the challenges, get everyone going in the same direction and make sure we have eliminated any of our weak links,\ Dorf says.

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Over the years, Basecamp generated City Winery’s mantra of “indulge your senses” after having group exercises discussing the company’s mission and values. This became the name of Dorf’s first book. 

“Without Basecamp, I really don’t think our company’s values and what I hope everyone gets out of coming to work would be the same,\ Dorf says. \Taking action, executing, doing something instead of just talking about it was one of the best lessons I could ever instill. It was true selfish philanthropy, as we not only provided critical help, but we all came home feeling so much better about ourselves and our brand. I’m proud of how we act, how we have grown and the impact Basecamp has had on creating a cohesive management team.\

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