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BottleRock festival gets high marks from attendees, mixed reviews outside gates

Big signs showing the schedule are posted all over the venue during BottleRock 2013 held in Napa, Friday, May 10, 2013.

Crista Jeremiason / PD
Published: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 6:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 6:11 p.m.

Charlie Musselwhite, the harmonica legend from Geyserville, rolled up to the gates of the inaugural BottleRock festival in Napa Friday and was told he couldn't get in because his name was not on any lists, even though he wore a wristband that clearly had the word “artist” written on it.

“He said he could call, but he wouldn't,” said Musselwhite, 69, whose scheduled performance with Ben Harper on Saturday evening is among BottleRock's most anticipated moments.

The incident can be interpreted as the usual glitches of any major first-time event. Or, it could be seen as another symptom of what one Sonoma County vintner that has a booth at the festival described as BottleRock organizers “biting off more than they can chew.”

The early reviews of BottleRock, which continues through Sunday, is that the event so far has delivered on bringing an unprecedented and impressive line-up of bands and comedians to Napa.

Two-and-a-half days into it, there still was a feeling of incredulity in the air at the Napa Valley Expo that the likes of the Alabama Shakes and Black Crowes had graced the site of Napa's fair, bingo games and crab feeds..

“There are bound to be some things that will upset some people, but I think it's awesome,” said Jay Schuppert, president of Cuvaison Estate Wines, as he munched on a lobster roll inside the Whole Foods Market Garden.

Outside the gates of the 26-acre expo, the reviews have been more mixed, with some complaining the event is drawing too many people to the expo, and not enough people downtown, where merchants have been banking on big crowds to recoup their financial commitment to BottleRock.

Yusuf Topal, owner of Tarla Mediterranean Grill on First Street, said 15 people showed up Thursday for a late-hours party at his restaurant, which is an official party site reserved for BottleRockers who paid for VIP passes to the event.

“It was so sad,” Topal said.

Topal said he has budgeted $10,000 for BottleRock, an amount that includes staffing and a DJ for the after-hours parties. But Topal said all of the restaurants up and down First Street Thursday night were just as empty as his.

At the expo, a Sonoma County vintner who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the winery said the company has invested $30,000 for a presence at BottleRock.

The vintner said the visual exposure is good for the winery. But he said from his vantage point, festival attendance is not meeting expectations.

“It's a stunning undertaking. My gut just tells me that if there's not a dramatic turnaround, someone's going to lose a lot of money,” he said.

BottleRock organizers estimated festival crowds for Wednesday and Thursday to total about 18,000, which if accurate, is about 2,000 more than what the Napa fair brings in on a single peak day in August.

Organizers estimated Friday's crowd to be much larger, around 35,000, which is at the upper end of what they predicted for the festival's most popular days. However, organizers so far have declined to say how many tickets have been sold for the event.

The expo certainly felt more crowded Friday. The late afternoon performance by members of the Alabama Shakes, who wasted no time launching into their mega-hit, “Hold On,” drew the largest audience so far and almost packed the field in front of the massive 70-foot Willpower stage.

At the expo Friday, Gabe Meyers, one-half of the duo that founded BottleRock, said the festival is “going great.”

“It's fun to see things coming together,” he said. “Everyone told me there would be hiccups in the first year, and I believe it.”

Meyers described the only major glitches so far to be delays opening the expo gates each morning, an issue he said was related to getting supplies replenished from the previous day.

With regard to concerns expressed by downtown merchants, Meyers said people need to keep the event in “context.”

“A lot of people are here to watch world-class talent. Dumping into downtown is up to the people,” he said.

That flow may have been stymied by BottleRock organizers on Thursday decreeing that only Napa residents and VIP pass holders could have re-entry privileges. The policy was rescinded Friday so that everyone can now re-enter the expo until 8 p.m.

Asked whether BottleRock investors are meeting their financial goals and whether the event will return next year, Meyers replied, “We certainly think that this is something very viable and here to stay.”

Some of that will depend on how the Napa community feels about BottleRock after living with it for nearly a week. The expo is state property, but an unprecedented level of city services are being deployed to assist with the operation.

The Napa Police Department was continuing to field complaints Friday about the event related to noise, parking and drunken and inappropriate behavior, which prompted one Juarez Street resident to erect a sign stating, “My yard is not your toilet.”

“I think it's at the level we anticipated,” Captain Steve Potter said of the complaint.

However, police had made only a handful of arrests, mostly for public intoxication, as of Friday. Potter said on the whole, most people at the festival “are there to have a good time and listen to music.”

Traffic also has been a bottleneck near the expo at certain times of day. But at other times downtown city streets have felt eerily empty.

Susie Weaver of Stinson Beach was not fazed by the 15-minute shuttle ride from an industrial park to the expo Friday. Clutching a rolled marijuana joint, Weaver described feeling like a “hipster” at BottleRock.

“It feels high-class,” she said.

Musselwhite was magnanimous about his ordeal, describing the confusion that greeted him and his wife at the gate Friday as a “bump” for festival organizers.

He also said that the festivals he's most familiar with debut with a stage or two and build from there.

BottleRock organizers, he said, “are starting at the top.”

“It's a good thing,” he said. “It's exciting.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)

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