Inside City Winery’s crushing relocation: ‘It’s unfortunate, but it’s life’

By | August 15, 2019

David Lecomte is the only professional winemaker currently crushing grapes commercially in Manhattan. And this summer was a particularly moving experience for the 47-year-old Frenchman.

That’s because his place of business, City Winery on Varick Street in lower Manhattan, had to move across town to a site on a pier overlooking the Hudson River. And Lecomte, who trained in Europe for his profession, was in charge of relocating to the new site 14 huge aluminum tanks and 350 wooden barrels filled with anywhere from 210 to 2,000 gallons of wine.

The move wasn’t voluntary.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s life,” said Lecomte as we sat down to talk a day before the move had to be made. “There’s nothing we can do, so we have to deal with it.”

The Walt Disney Co., which has a major presence in Manhattan, took over the City Winery site — its home for the past decade — and surrounding buildings when it signed a 99-year lease.

Trinity Church is the landowner and it is now being sued by City Winery for $ 2 million. I’ll get to that part of this story in a bit.

Disney is paying $ 650 million in rent and will reportedly put another $ 2 billion into developing the site in order to create a new headquarters for ABC and WABC, as well as offices, production space and studios for “The View” and “Live with Kelly and Ryan.”

City Winery is known to thousands of New Yorkers not only as a place to imbibe on high quality Bordeaux, chardonnay and other fine vintages, but also as a concert space featuring the most eclectic sounds. Singer-songwriter Joan Osborne, whose works include “What If God Was One of Us,” was on hand to open City Winery 10 years ago and she closed it with a concert late last month.

In between, the place has hosted a wide variety of hundreds of acts and other performers including Annie & The Beekeeper, Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Elvis Costello.

City Winery also sells bottles of wine to commemorate special performances, so there’s the 2016 pinot noir that pays tribute to singer Pete Seeger and another in memory of Lou Reed, Gregg Allman and Prince.

A rendering of City Winery's new location in Chelsea.
A rendering of City Winery’s new location in Chelsea.Courtesy of City Winery

The closing left a bitter taste for many of the wine drinkers, music lovers and staff. But for Lecomte it was all about protecting the wine.

Earlier this year I promised to do columns on local people with unusual jobs as a break from the all the important — and necessary — employment statistical pieces write in this space.

It’s where the job statistics meet the real world. And in this case, Lecomte and City Winery founder and Chief Executive Michael Dorf got a double dose of reality when Disney suddenly signed a lease with Trinity Church and the winery was told to vacate.

“The benefit is we will have a better winery moving forward,” said Lecomte, who — when the move is complete in early 2020 — will be operating on Pier 57 in the Hudson River Park.

“It’s much harder to move a winery that is still functioning than to build a new one,” Lecomte says. He’s also in charge of all six of the winemaking operations owned by City Winery around the country. With a wife and a 14-year-old son living in the city, and the all-consuming move, Lecomte says he’s doesn’t have enough time these days for much else.

“I worked in vineyards at 12 [and] worked in wineries at 19,” said Lecomte. But seeing how hard the job is, he says his son doesn’t want any part of it.

Lecomte has taught courses on winemaking in the past. But with City Wineries in Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Boston, Washington, DC, and two others soon to open, teaching isn’t a priority. “I’m just too busy right now,” he said.

There are six winemakers under his supervision these days. Only one is French, and everyone else is American.

Grapes for City Winery’s wines come from northern and southern California, Seattle, and local Long Island producers. In all, City Winery makes about 8,000 cases of wine each year, says Lecomte.

Dorf, Lecomte’s City Winery partner, spearheaded the legal fight against Trinity Church.

Trinity, Dorf says, recently gave City Winery a five-year extension on its lease. So, he says, his company spent $ 2 million turning the loft space at the Varick Street location into another concert venue — money that’s now lost.

“Disney isn’t the bad player here,” Dorf said in an interview. “It’s Trinity Church,” which owns a lot of lower Manhattan thanks to a land grant from England in the 1600s.

Trinity has asked that the $ 2 million suit be dismissed and through a spokesperson has said, “the lawsuit is entirely without merit.”

So that’s how the story of how David Lecomte — the only commercial winemaker in the city — became a mover who’s shaking a bit these days. He hopes to get back to just making wine very soon.

Living | New York Post