It seems like a good idea on paper: Throw a music festival in wine country where guests can go wine-tasting and sample some of the region's best restaurants in between musical acts. That was the focus of Bottle Rock, a new festival thrown in a park in downtown Napa that combines stadium-filling rock groups like the Black Keys and the Flaming Lips with high-end restaurants and wineries. "What we're trying to do is a connoisseur's festival -- a rock show for people with a palate," one of the event organizers told SF Weekly music editor Ian S. Port last month. But unlike Outside Lands, a music festival that just happens to have really great food and drinks that you can grab between acts, Bottle Rock seemed to have trouble integrating the two portions, and ended up with without a clear emphasis on either and a crowd that seemed more interested in partying than enjoying the finer points of connoisseurship.
The biggest problem with the wine-tasting idea made itself apparent early on: it was at least 80 degrees and super-sunny for most of the day. Shade was at a premium, and beer was the beverage of choice -- I like discussing the nuances of a good Cabernet Sauvignon with the winemaker as much as the next oenophile, but not when there's sweat trickling down my back and thousands of people milling around and distracting me. Then there was the cost: five-ounce pours of wine in the tents were selling for between $13 and $17 (one of my friends reported seeing one for $21) -- a price higher than you'd find at most tasting rooms, and that for the privilege of trying wine out of a plastic cup.
Because of this, the wine tasting tents were nowhere near as crowded as the beer booths, with one exception: Everyone was walking around with white Bottle Rock-branded wine pouches, drinking the wine through straws like a grownup Capri Sun. The "White Noise" white wine was some kind of buttery chardonnay, the "Reverb Red" (slightly chilled, which was appreciated) seemed to be a blend, and while it was certainly not great wine, it was drinkable, and the pouches were portable, easy to share, and a relative deal at $15 for 12.5 ounces.
I was excited to check out the food, because the culinary portion was curated by well-known Napa restaurateur Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, and Cindy Pawlcyn's Wood Grill & Wine Bar). Most of the fancy Napa restaurants were in the Whole Foods Market Garden, a corral of food booths and reclaimed wood tables in between the three stages. To get anything you first had to wait in line to buy tokens, a hassle because you had to figure out how much food you'd want in advance. The tokens were sold in $5 increments, which meant that most of the better dishes in the pavilion were $15. And because some booths took cash as well as tokens -- and you had to buy beer with cash (Sierra Nevada's booth was in the corner) -- the whole process seemed as arbitrary as it was annoying.
Not to say there weren't some great things to eat in the Whole Foods Market Garden. The best thing we ate at the festival -- and indeed, probably the best thing I've eaten in the past week -- was a short rib, tomato and arugula pizza from Tra Vigne, the Italian restaurant and wood-fired pizzeria in St. Helena. The pizza was topped with a generous amount of rich, slow-cooked short rib that melted into the pizza's cheese; baby tomatoes and arugula cut through the richness and added vivid brightness to the meat's earthy flavor. It was well worth $15.
A deeply satisfying grilled cheese sandwich from The Girl and the Fig had Santa Rosa's St. George cheese with house-cured ham. What really made it was the crust, an almost sweet, brioche-like bread that had a crispy crunch on the outside and was soft and pliable on the inside. I'm always skeptical of $10 grilled cheese sandwiches, but this was an example of one that I couldn't have replicated at home.
We enjoyed an Argentinean sausage sandwich from Smoke ($15) which had a spicy sausage, provelone cheese, and chimichurri. The sauce was a little too heavy on the vinegar, but the sausage was just spicy enough and perfectly grilled. The real problem with the sandwich was that it fell apart as you ate it, and its greasiness required several trips back to restock napkins -- a reminder that festival food is about the ease of eating as much as the taste.
But for all the dishes that showed the strengths of Napa restaurants, there were plenty of mediocre plates as well. The Santa Maria BBQ tri-tip sandwich from Traxx was a terrible disappointment -- cheap bun, flavorless salsa, cold meat, and felt like a ripoff at $10.
By far the longest line in the Whole Foods Market Garden was for the tacos at La Condesa, so we got in line there too, and ordered one chicken mole and one pulled pork ($10 for two). The meats were indistinguishable from each other, to the point where we wondered if they'd made a mistake with our order, and the sauces were bland and watery. As we stood nearby and ate them, someone asked us whether the line was worth it, and we gave an emphatic "no."
We left the Black Keys set early and hightailed it back to the car to escape the inevitable traffic jam on the two-lane highway going in and out of Napa. On the drive back to the city, we stopped at In-N-Out for a late-night snack. Two double-doubles, fries, and drinks cost about $15, and as we sat in the florescently-lit restaurant, chowing down and recapping the night, I realized that I was happier than I'd been all day, and wished that Bottle Rock had focused less on chasing after a high-end culinary experience and more on providing people with the simple things they want at a festival.