A few storefronts aside, the 2800 block of Penn Avenue looks practically vacant. This is the part of the Strip District that seems to mostly be driven through, rather than stopped in. A tall, four-story building near the corner of the block bears the name Franklin Savings and Trust Company. Through the 1920s-era barred gate, once used to keep out bank-robbers, are barrels and barrels of wine and a steep set of steps leading to a stage — graced one night in June by an Americana band from Knoxville, Tenn.
"The venue itself kind of reminds me of a speakeasy, because you don't really know it's there," says David Manchester, guitarist and vocalist of Arlo Aldo, which has played the venue more than once. "But it's such a beautiful little gem."
Arlo Aldo on this particular evening is opening a show for Knoxville's The Black Lillies, playing to a capacity crowd in the basement of the Winery. The 99-capacity space lends itself to intimate performances, with a feeling of warmth and closeness between the performer and the audience. The crowd, either standing or sitting at candle-lit wine-barrel tables, sips zinfandels, malbecs and petite sirahs and sways to the inviting bluegrass and Tennessee twang.
The winery-slash-music venue is owned by Tim Gaber, bass player for the Buzz Poets and wine aficionado. After years of working as a booking agent, promoter and musician, Gaber got involved with wine-making as a hobby about 15 years ago. As the music part of his life was winding down, his interest in wine ramped up. His hobby progressed into studying wine-making and working with California vintners. Pittsburgh Winery opened its doors almost two years ago.
"I made a place that I wanted to hang out in," Gaber says. "Just like the wines. We make wines that we love.
"It all comes together here now. I'm very fortunate that I've kind of been able to tie all my passions together under one roof."
Open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, 2815 Penn Ave. is a tasting room, just like the ones in California, from where the winery's grapes are imported. But now, around seven nights a month, the winery closes its doors only to reopen later in the night for live music, with local and national acts.
Gaber books some of the music for the winery's basement — its walls lined with wine barrels, and featuring a full array of lights — but gets help from fellow wine-and-music-lover Tim Wolfson. Gaber books more singer-songwriters acts, while Wolfson books bands he's met while traveling, via Music Night on Jupiter, the company he runs with his wife, Debby.
Wolfson, an attorney by day, has long been a prolific traveler, with his trips around the U.S. centering on three things: wine, food and music. Through his travels, he connected with bands along the way, and he and Debby would host bands in their Allison Park home when the groups came through Pittsburgh. Having worked with local promoters in his day job, Wolfson would get bands gigs when he could.
The traffic of musical guests in the Wolfson home was getting hectic and he couldn't always find them a place to play. Having met Gaber through Engine House, another local winery where Gaber was previously a partner, Wolfson reached out to him about doing concerts.
"I came in to talk to Tim opening weekend or soon thereafter," Wolfson says. "He basically said to me, ‘You kept saying you wanted to do music — let's do it.'"
Shows started at the Winery in March 2013 and gradually the space became more and more in demand. Now, Wolfson says, they could do two or three shows a week if they said yes to everyone who wanted to play there. While a year ago he was reaching out to bands about shows, now he fields calls daily.
All of the touring bands stay at the Wolfsons' home, where they have hosted more than 30 bands and counting. Debby Wolfson describes it as a free bed-and-breakfast, with the bands getting a meal, and beds to sleep in.
"Sometimes it ends up it's a jam session at 3 in the morning, or sometimes doing a couple shots," Debby Wolfson says. "Or sometimes it's, ‘Hey, let's go to sleep, because I gotta get out of here at 6 in the morning.'"
While the Winery benefits in terms of wine sales when shows draw well, the money from ticket sales goes straight to the bands. "We're not interested in taking one dollar from the bands," Gaber says. "I think we both love and respect the musicians so much that we want them to get to the next city."
On the musicians' part, there's both an element of comfort and a level of nerves to playing the unique setup of the Winery. A wrong maneuver with an amp or bass drum, Arlo Aldo's Manchester notes, and 700 bottles' worth of wine could go uncorked.
"If you bump into walls at Smiling Moose, no one's going to notice," he says. "If you kinda bang into a chair at Club Café, its fine; they're chairs. But if you bang into a wine cask at a winery, you're probably not going to get asked back— or be allowed to play that night."
As the music community grows in Pittsburgh, Gaber sees a need for more and different venues — and he thinks the Winery helps fill that need.
"Our intention wasn't initially to become a major music venue or anything like that," he says. "I think we're just filling a small niche that needed to be filled, and we just do it because we love it."