NAPA Music-loving entrepreneurs Gabe Meyers and Bob Vogt saw an opening: a spot on the calendar in between April's Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals, held in the Southern California desert, and late May's Sasquatch! Festival in Washington state.
They would try to lure artists already on the West Coast to perform at a new rock festival in mid-May in the Napa Valley. Compared with Indio in Riverside County, the sun-blasted home to Coachella and Stagecoach, Napa would be paradise, with plenty of great food and wine to sweeten the deal.
"We tried to make it as enticing as possible," said Vogt, co-founder with Meyers of BottleRock, a music, food, wine and comedy festival running May 9-12 at the Napa Valley Expo fairgrounds in the town of Napa. The Black Keys, Kings of Leon, Furthur (with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir) and the Zac Brown Band will headline the four-stage festival.
Convinced that the revitalized city of Napa with its bustling restaurant scene and music venues such as the restored Uptown Theatre could support a festival, Vogt and Meyers started making calls.
Vogt co-owns the Uptown, where artists such as Brian Wilson and Ryan Adams have performed, and understands how to book bands. But the festival, financed by what Meyers calls "private and confidential investors," would be a separate entity, and neither Vogt, 63, nor Meyers, 42, partners in the Napa production company WillPower Entertainment, have mounted a big rock festival before.
Vogt's background includes real-estate development and a stint in the 1990s helping expand the Caffino drive-in coffee stand business. He met Meyers 20 years ago, when Meyers worked at the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Co. Vogt hand-picked him to come help open Caffino stands.
Meyers later joined Vogt in briefly running the Uptown as an art-house movie theater. More recently, Meyers ran his own event production company.
The festival they started planning around a year ago would be exponentially bigger than their previous entertainment ventures, potentially drawing 35,000 rock fans per day to the 26-acre Expo. Like San Francisco's larger Outside Lands, the Napa festival would emphasize premium food and wine as well as music.
So far, BottleRock has partnered with more than 40 wineries, including Ceja Vineyards, St. Supéry and Miner Family winery, and will devote significant Expo real estate to wine, beer and food, including offerings from restaurants such as Zuzu, Fish Story and Morimoto.
But when the partners first approached music agents, "the reaction was generally nervous," the silver-haired, laid-back Vogt said during an interview early this month at BottleRock's storefront headquarters in downtown Napa. "A first-year festival comes with a lot of baggage. They would say, 'Then we want this much money.' "
Vogt and Meyers usually agreed to the band's terms. "There is no doubt we could have driven a harder bargain (but) we paid the price we felt we could pay to get the people we want to get," Vogt said.
Throw money, a great setting and premium food and wine at a music act who could refuse? Some did, however, including one of Meyers' favorite female singer-songwriters. She had been on board the day before this interview, but had since fallen out. Meyers does not want to name her in print. It hurts too much.
He takes music personally. His dad was a Deadhead and his mom named him Gabriel partly after Joan Baez's son Gabriel. Vogt likes 1970s singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne, who will perform at BottleRock.
More than 60 acts did commit to BottleRock, and all reflect "the music we like," Vogt said, because they contacted only acts they like.
The organizers' personal tastes helped carve out a festival that distinguishes itself from the exceedingly hip Coachella, the country-specific Stagecoach and the heavily alternative Sasquatch. It also differs from the roots-music and jam-band festivals, from Strawberry to High Sierra, that fill the Northern California summer festival calendar.
BottleRock's rock focus goes deep into its lineup, from the bluesy Black Keys, Alabama Shakes, Black Crowes (now featuring Sacramento's Jackie Greene) and Blues Traveler to alternative acts the Shins, Cake (also from Sacramento) Jane's Addiction and the Flaming Lips.
The more veteran acts range from 1970s singer-songwriters Browne and Richard Thompson to punk-tinged bands X and Violent Femmes.
"If you like rock 'n' roll, it's pretty great," Meyers said of BottleRock. "It's missing a lot of electronic and hip-hop elements that other festivals seem to have."
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, performers of the sassy, tag-popping hit "Thrift Shop," will offer a taste of hip-hop and electronic music at a May 8 pre-festival Expo show (individual tickets to this performance sold out, but festival multiday pass-buyers can get in). But most electronic acts prefer playing in the wee hours, Meyers said, and the Expo comes with a 10 p.m. noise curfew.
Such buzzkill logistical realities factor in as heavily as band names on the marquee when planning a big festival. But Vogt and Meyers never were daunted.
"It is a command central sort of thing," Vogt said of his partnership with Meyers. "We decide to do things quickly, and then get them done."
Still, they are festival newcomers, so they've hired experts who are not. Running sound, lights and video at BottleRock will be Delicate Productions, which has performed the same function for several festivals and rock tours. (Delicate toured with Foo Fighters and Them Crooked Vultures).
Delicate's George Edwards helped put together BottleRock's production and operations teams, tapping the Bay Area's large pool of behind-the-scenes event talent.
"With four stages and 26 acres, there's no such thing as a day at the races," Edwards said. "But the way the (we) have laid out the grounds is conducive to doing a show like this pretty effectively and fluidly."
Vogt and Meyers took inspiration from the resurgence of downtown Napa, which now steals visitors from up-valley with its restaurants, tasting rooms and music at the Uptown, Silo's jazz club and Napa Valley Opera House.
"It blows my mind to see people on the streets at 10 o'clock at night," said Meyers, who spent part of his childhood in Napa. "Downtown Napa is now a place."
Vogt and Meyers also were heartened by last summer's Porchfest, a festival in which musicians play on porches around town. The event drew 10,000 people.
An avid festivalgoer, Meyers first envisioned BottleRock as a fancier Porchfest, or as a smaller version of the multivenue, indoor-outdoor South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
The Expo, which sits on Third Street a few blocks from the heart of downtown Napa, was to be one venue of many. But the festival experts Vogt and Meyers consulted encouraged them to do the whole event there.
"It's convenient, it's accessible, the toilets flush, and there is more power than you will ever want," Meyers said. It helped that the Expo is owned by the state of California.
"The state is one-stop shopping in terms of 'Can we do this?' " Meyers said. "We don't have to go through all the different agencies throughout the valley."
Home to the Napa Town & Country Fair each August, the Expo features an existing stage that will hold acts such as Browne, Mavis Staples and folk-rocker Brandi Carlile. The festival will erect two bigger outdoor stages: the Silverado stage for headliners and the Midway stage where acts such as the Flaming Lips will play. The Expo's indoor venue will hold comedy shows.
Outside Lands, which happens each August in Golden Gate Park, also offers comedy along with its rock, food and wine. But the far smaller BottleRock is not competing with that festival, Meyers said.
"Because of what the nature of what we are doing here smaller, in Napa, and with the timing in May, by August people will be saying, 'Oh yeah, I remember BottleRock. Now I want to see these bands at Outside Lands.' "
The festival will cover all the Expo's acreage, eliminating the 900 parking spaces usually devoted to the fair. Fair parking spaces were scant anyway, Meyers said, considering that event draws 2,000 people per day.
BottleRock expects almost triple that number and has planned accordingly. The festival will offer 3,000 to 4,000 spaces on a tract of land two miles from the Expo, and plans to secure a second tract of similar size. The festival will run shuttles to and from the Expo.
Festival organizers hope to allay traffic concerns by starting the day's events at noon and ending at 10 p.m., avoiding rush hour.
A portion of festival proceeds will go toward Autism Chords, an in-the-works nonprofit concerned with finding living facilities for young adults with autism.
"The things that allow them to have a happy, productive life is something that needs to be addressed," Vogt said.
Vogt's 21-year-old son, Will, is autistic and inspired WillPower's name. It's also the name of the rock band in which Will plays drums, Vogt plays guitar and sings, and Meyers attempts the bass.
Meyers and his wife, Lisa, have known Will most his life. The boy was nonverbal until age 3, when Vogt and his wife, Teresa, paid for Lisa to go to school to learn to work with autistic children. With Lisa's help, Will began speaking.
The high-stress preparations for BottleRock have not diminished Vogt and Meyers' longtime friendship or easy rapport.
"We will argue, and people will start looking over," Vogt said. "He will raise his voice and I will raise my voice. Then we will start laughing."
BOTTLEROCK NAPA VALLEY
What: A four-day music, food, wine, beer and comedy festival
When: May 9-12
Where: Napa Valley Expo, 575 Third St., Napa
Cost: Single-day: $139. Three-day pass (May 10, 11 and 12): $329. Four-day pass: $399. Four-day VIP pass: $599
Furthur (with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir)
The Black Crowes (including Jackie Greene)
The Avett Brothers
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Comedian Tig Notaro
The Black Keys
The Flaming Lips
Kings of Leon
Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite
Zac Brown Band
Michael Franti and Spearhead
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.