By Andy J. Gordon and Jenny Peters
A road trip from Los Angeles to the Napa Valley is always a great way to spend a weekend. Add in a weekend-long extravaganza that offers private, exclusive wine tastings, gourmet food and intimate live concerts, and the trip becomes extraordinary. Such was the promise of a trip to Live in the Vineyard, which usually happens twice a year — in April and November.
The latest edition took place from November 3-6, 2016, and was a grand success.
Claire Parr and Bobbii Hach-Jacobs, two music industry professionals, are the co-founders of Live in the Vineyard. Their vision for a unique celebration that combines excellent wine, food and live music has been a fixture in Napa for years, as this latest weekend celebrated their eighteenth edition.
The event is publicized by radio stations around the country and by Sirius/XM satellite radio; and listeners enter a contest to win the dream weekend trip. The only other way for regular folks to score tickets to attend is by bidding on two charity auctions. The charities, Kidd’s Kids and City of Hope, get all the proceeds from the auctions. That exclusivity means that just a few hundred people attend, making Live in the Vineyard an intimate and very hands-on experience.
We arrived Friday and went straight to an early afternoon tasting party at Robert Biale Vineyards in Napa. The view from the outdoor patio overlooking the acres of grapevines and rolling hills was glorious. There was a gourmet spread of finger foods and several people pouring the tasty Biale wines, with standouts being their 2014 Rockpile Zinfandel and the 2013 Basic Black red blend. While we enjoyed the view, food and wine, James T W, Stanaj and Mike Posner serenaded us with some beautiful, acoustic music. It was a theme that would be repeated throughout the weekend.
Later that evening, the Westin Verasa, part of the Aloft group and one of the host hotels for the weekend’s festivities, held a lovely wine-tasting party in their outdoor courtyard space. About 20 wineries participated and there was a nice array of buffet-style nibbles available along one side of the courtyard. Stella Artois was also pouring their tasty Belgian beer. The generous winery reps kept pouring while they gave us inside info about each of their wines.
Some of our favorite selections of the evening were the 2014 Caymus Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2012 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2013 Clos De Val Cabernet, the 2013 Trinchero Napa Valley BRV Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2013 Taken red blend. Other excellent selections were available from Frank Family Vineyards, Miner, Beaulieu Vineyards and JaM Cellars.
After the tasting party, we headed over to the Uptown Theatre Napa for the night’s big concert showcase. The theater is a beautifully restored Art Deco movie house with a big stage, great acoustics and comfortable seating. Calum Scott with his trio got things started with some heartfelt ballads. JOHNNYSWIM, a dynamic husband-and-wife duo, followed. The pair, Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez, began writing songs together in 2006. Their passionate, energetic set culminated with the duo climbing into the audience with Ramirez on acoustic guitar, doing an unamplified duet.
Steven Wrabel, another singer-songwriter, came out next with his trio. Wrabel played keyboards and crooned several soulful songs. He talked emotionally about how thrilled he was to have his parents in the audience. After Wrabel, the rootsy rock singer/guitarist Phillip Phillips performed a spirited set. The show closed with O.A.R. (Of a Revolution). The downsized trio (no bass or drums) with lead vocalist/guitarist Marc Roberge, guitarist Richard On and saxophonist/guitarist Jerry DePizzo have participated in several of the Live in the Vineyard events. Their set of catchy rock and jam-heavy songs concluded an exhilarating day.
On Saturday, we went north in the Napa Valley to St. Helena for brunch at the Sutter Home tasting room and courtyard. The estate was first used as a tasting room in 1890 and Sutter Home has been part of Trichero Family Estates wines since 1948. Staff in the tasting room were pouring a diverse selection of Sutter Home and Menage a Trois wines. Guests also had the option of sparkling wines and a fruity sangria. We stuck to the delicious 2015 Pacific Heights Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and the 2012 Trinchero Napa Valley Forte red blend. Charcuterie-filled platters, along with cheeses, breads and fresh fruit all paired well with the assorted wines.
While enjoying the wine and food, we were serenaded by a group of talented musicians. The initial plan was to have each of the three musicians perform solo. However, Claire and Bobbii thought it would be fun to do a roundtable with all three on stage at once. The three artists, Zack Heckendorf on guitar and vocals, Brandon James on keyboards and vocals, and Drake White on guitar and vocals, took turns playing. In between songs their improvised banter was a hoot. They also discussed their musical influences. The show ended with Brandon James covering “Take Me Home,” a song written by Phil Collins, one of his early influences, along with Heckendorf and White adding backing vocals.
We used the free time in our Saturday schedule to check out the new Blue Note Napa, which opened on October 25, 2016, at the historic Napa Valley Opera House. Blue Note Napa is part of the iconic Blue Note Entertainment Group network, with famed music venues in New York, Washington, D.C., Milan, Hawaii, Beijing and two locations in Japan. The flagship Blue Note New York celebrates its 35th anniversary in 2016.
The Napa location is a gorgeous jazz club on the ground floor that can accommodate about 200 people. They have a full bar and a fine food menu with live music scheduled six days a week. The venue will also present performances in the second-story Opera House Ballroom, a live-music space with an open floor plan that has a capacity of over 600 people. The ballroom will feature top national acts of varied musical genres, as well as a private event space available for large groups.
Later that evening we had an amazing dinner at Miminashi, an “Izakaya-style” restaurant that opened in May 2016 in the heart of downtown Napa. Chef/owner Curtis Di Fede is cranking out gourmet Japanese pub cuisine inside a gorgeous space reminiscent of Buddhist and Shinto temples. All the high-quality sustainable ingredients he uses are meticulously sourced. The chef’s Le Cordon Bleu education and 15 years of high-end Bay-area restaurant experience comes out in his superb flavor combinations.
The day ended with another Live in the Vineyard concert showcase at the Uptown Theatre. The Saturday night lineup started with Walking on Cars, an Irish alternative rock band. They were followed by the contemporary acoustic folk-pop band Castro, a trio consisting of brothers Jason and Michael along with sister Jackie Castro. After the trio left the stage, surprise guest artists Matt Nathanson and Andrew MacMahon were joined by Lolo. They did a few songs with some beautiful harmonizing and brought Castro back out at the end of the set to do an impassioned cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Alternative rock band Blue October came next with a stripped-down set of fiery ballads. Justin Furstenfeld’s vocals were powerful and mesmerizing. Mike Posner closed the show with his full band. They played a complete set of ballads and energetic rock songs. The show ended with the full house giving the band a standing ovation.
We concluded our Live in the Vineyard experience with Sunday brunch at Liana Estates in Carneros. Liana is the project of Lisa and Ariana Peju, daughters of Tony Peju, the patriarch of Peju Napa Valley. The new estate just opened and has great panoramic views of the vine-filled rolling hills as well as of San Pablo Bay. Brunch consisted of yummy frittatas, sausages, salads and fresh fruits. The food tasted great and went well with the Liana sparkling wine, 2014 Pinot Noir and their red blend.
The brunch was hosted by Joy Bauer from NBC’s Today Show. She talked about nutrition and diet while joking with the guests in the audience. After her segment, Claire and Bobbii introduced the last musical guest, acclaimed singer, songwriter and actress Idina Menzel. Menzel performed a short set of songs including her newest single “Queen of Swords.” It was a spectacular finish to the weekend of delicious wine, food and intimate music performances.
Our weekend in Napa, spent with a small group of lucky people who enjoyed the unique Live in the Vineyard experience, was unforgettable. The carefully selected venues, wines, food and music talent made it impossible to duplicate. We can only wonder what Claire and Bobbii have planned for their next event. Check their website for information on the next experience, to find a list of radio stations around the country to tune into, for the chance to enter the next contest and win the opportunity to experience this unique time in Napa, California with some amazing hosts. It’s like nothing you’ve ever imagined in California wine country!