City Winery of New York is in talks with the Napa Valley Opera House about the possibility of converting the historic venue into a “culinary meets culture” cabaret with tables and chairs replacing the existing theater seating.
“We are getting close to an announcement,” Michael Dorf, founder and CEO of City Winery said by phone from New York on Thursday, “but we haven’t signed an agreement yet.”
The City Winery model, as described by its website, combines winemaking and music. According to the site, Dorf opened the first City Winery in New York because he wanted to “create a space in The City where he could combine his passions for wine and music. The core target audience of City Winery are people who share those same passions. We cater to urban wine enthusiasts who desire the experience of making their own wines but who are not going to leave their comfortable City lifestyle to decamp to a vineyard.”
The success of the first winery led to the opening of a second City Winery in Chicago last year, Dorf said.
“The tagline we have (for New York and Chicago) — wine country in the city — doesn’t quite work,” Dorf said. “We’ll have to reverse it.”
Dorf said he became familiar with Napa as he sourced wines and grapes for his City Winery venues.
“As we’re expanding, we decided not to go with the obvious and open (a City Winery) in San Francisco, but go right to wine country.”
To convert the Opera House to a City Winery, he said, the plan would convert the lower floor, now the Opera House Cafe Theatre, to a restaurant.
Upstairs, he said they would return the main theater to its original design with a flat floor, remove the seats and replace them with tables and chairs.
“We wouldn’t touch the stage or walls,” he said.
The balcony would remain, he added. “The only thing we might do is take out every other seat and replace it with cocktail tables.”
Board chairman of the Opera House Bob Almeida said in a statement Thursday evening that the deal was contingent on maintaining the rights of existing seat holders.
“We have met the City Winery team and are impressed with their capabilities and experience,” Almeida said. “However, in a deal of this complexity there are many details which need to be ironed out and we are not there yet.
“Both City Winery and the Opera House are in absolute agreement that the rights of our existing seat holders and members would be preserved and, in fact enhanced, through the increased number and variety of performances.”
The plan would also include installing a new, state-of-the-art sound system, he said.
“We’re really excited about the possibilities,” he said. “Right now, the Opera House is dark a lot of the time. We’d have programming 300 nights a year.”
The “explosion of growth” in the city of Napa was one of the attractions, Dorf said, adding that he was encouraged and impressed by the BottleRock music festival in May at the Napa Valley Expo. His company had a booth at the four-day event where they gave out brochures describing his vision for a City Winery in Napa.
“City Winery Napa will have 30 or more taps with wine from Napa’s best vineyards and wineries to present the freshest straight-from-the-barrel flavors,” the brochure reads. “This will give customers inside access to some of the best growers in the region.”
The Napa Valley Opera House opened in 1880 with a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore.” Jack London, John Philip Sousa and the Italian soprano Luisa Tettrazini are among those who performed at the Opera House before it went dark in 1914. Damage from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the decline of vaudeville with the advent of films contributed to its closure.
In the 1970s, when Napa was undergoing extensive urban renewal the Opera House was nearly demolished before a group of local citizens decided to save it from the wrecking ball.
After extensive fundraising, renovations began and the Opera House reopened in 2003. Since then it has presented a variety of programs from community groups as well as world-renowned entertainers.
Although it is operated as a private nonprofit, in June 30, 2011 the city of Napa made a $1.5 million forgivable loan to the Opera House to retire some existing debt which freed up their own cash flow for operations.
Dorf said ideally if a contract is signed, he’d like to start renovation work by the end of this year.
Peter Williams, the director of the Opera House, said in a statement that all planned performances will go on as scheduled through the end of the year.
This story has been modified since its original posting to include comments from Opera House officials.