At the beginning of 2013, the Napa Valley Opera House was planning a year of celebrating the 10th anniversary since a community-funded drive had restored and reopened the historic 1880 building after years in the dark.
Mid-year, however, the story had taken an unexpected turn when the Opera House board of directors announced they were in negotiations with Michael Dorf, the CEO of City Winery of New York City and Chicago, to take the downtown landmark in a new direction.
As a result of an agreement with Dorf, the Opera House went dark, yet again, after its final holiday show on Saturday. After a new series of renovations are finished in spring of 2014, it will reopen as City Winery at the Napa Valley Opera House.
This dramatic change at the Napa Valley Opera House earned seventh spot on the Register’s Top 10 list of news stories for 2013.
The City Winery venues, which combine urban wine-making with entertainment in a night-club like setting, have been hits in both Chicago and New York.
Dorf, while sourcing grapes for his venues, had gotten to know the Napa Valley, and after attending and being deeply impressed with Napa’s inaugural BottleRock music festival, he concluded that Napa would be a promising site for his next project.
The story came to light in July when a Napa Valley resident visiting City Winery in New York saw announcements that the group would be opening a third venue in Napa in the Opera House and called the Register, wondering if anyone had heard anything about this news.
Bob Almeida, chairman of the board of directors at the Opera House, subsequently explained that when the board learned that Dorf was looking into the possibility of a City Winery at the former Copia site, they contacted Dorf and began talks.
The Opera House was struggling financially and having problems filling the venue’s 500 seats for shows, Almeida said, and he feared that a competing City Winery would be “the nail in the coffin.”
The board has since signed a 10-year lease with options for renewal with Dorf. Although Dorf has decided to forego the wine-making aspect of his other venues, he plans to incorporate serving food and beverages with entertainment, which, he said, helps underwrite the cost of operating a theater. Among the changes that are underway, the downstairs will become a full-service restaurant with wines, most from local wineries, served on tap.
Upstairs, in the Margrit Biever Mondavi Theater, the floor will be leveled, and tables and chairs will replace the rows of seats. Patrons will be able to order food and beverages throughout the performances. The balcony will remain, although some of the seats will be removed to provide tables.
In addition to presenting shows, Dorf has agreed to reserve 75 days for community programming. He will also be renting out the Opera House theater space for private events. Replacing the seats with tables and chairs, gives the space more flexibility, he noted. He anticipates the Opera House theater will be in use at least 300 days a year.
In addition to income from the lease, the Opera House will receive a portion of profits, while Dorf’s group will be covering all of the upkeep and operating expenses.
Dorf has also agreed to put the theater seats in storage, in case, at the end of the next 10 years, he pulls out, and the Opera House board, on sounder financial footing, decides to put them back in.