As small cities go, Napa certainly has a big reputation... for wine. For rock 'n' roll? Not so much.
That's changed, though, with BottleRock Napa Valley, which returns to the fairgrounds in Napa on May 29-31. Now in its third year, the festival started out as a five-day extravaganza with a spectacular lineup too good to be true, or, more to the point, profitable: after paying the big-name bands, the original founders infamously left behind $8.5 million in unpaid bills to workers and vendors.
Under new ownership, the festival clearly seems to have ironed out the kinks of yesteryear. This year's lineup boasts over 70 bands and performers, including headliners Imagine Dragons, No Doubt and Robert Plant. But if you've never been to BottleRock, there are a few things you should know. Take it from me: I've been there, three days each year since it started, and learned from my mistakes. Here are my tips.
How to Get There
Parking at BottleRock was last year's biggest problem, with festival parking four miles away and irate attendees waiting up to three hours in line for the festival's shuttles on Saturday night. This year, the lot is only half a mile away, but parking costs $35 presale and $40 at the gate. Far better to park somewhere along the 8, 10 or 11 routes of VINE, Napa's city bus, and show your festival pass for a free ride. You can also park offsite and ride your bike in, but be aware that you can't lock your bike up to the fences out front -- all bikes are directed to bike valet parking, a few blocks away, which closes promptly at 11pm. (I learned this the hard way last year, showing up at 11:05pm to a locked door and a two-mile walk back to my car.)
Other options include a round-trip bus, which is new this year, and runs from Fairfield, Mill Valley, Oakland, Palo Alto, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Sonoma with two departure times and two return times. (Single-day roundtrip tickets are $30–$52.) A good tip is that on Sunday, probably much to the chagrin of the locals, street parking downtown is free with a short walk over the Third Street bridge to the festival. Certain neighbors near the site curse BottleRock yet have no qualms about charging $20 for parking on their property, and if you're feeling like a baller, you can always hit up Jerovi Sanson at Villa Iris Jewelry – he's the guy who charges $100 for parking directly across from the festival gates! (Yes, a few Mercedes-Benz and Maserati owners took him up on it last year.)
Keep in mind, also, that there are scant few roads into and out of the city of Napa. Give yourself a comfortable cushion of time to deal with traffic congestion, which is inevitable when 30,000 people descend upon a relatively small town.
What to Wear
There's hardly any shade at all to be found at the two biggest stages at BottleRock, so you'll be in direct sunlight for hours; sunscreen is a must. That said, temperatures can drop quickly at night, so have a light sweater or sweatshirt on hand. As with any festival, it can get dusty -- the first year's attendees kicked up so much dust that the entire food area is now covered in Astroturf -- so don't wear anything you don't want getting dirty and sweaty. The forecast for this weekend has highs in the 77°-81° range, so dress accordingly and comfortably; you'll be walking from stage to stage throughout the day. Other than that, just don't wear a Native American headdress and you'll be fine.
Where to Watch
At most BottleRock stages, it doesn't really matter where you stand. (See: aforementioned lack of shade.) But at the Miner Family stage, you can wriggle your way alongside the wall of the building to the right of the stage and find a relaxing alcove with a decent view. This may be difficult at times, as BottleRock during peak hours can be a claustrophobe's nightmare, with slow-moving bottlenecks of bodies packed shoulder-to-shoulder.
In addition to where to watch, also take note of when. As mentioned, get there early to deal with any traffic, but if you also want to beat the crowds to leave, know that BottleRock strictly enforces a 10pm curfew. In fact, both Heart and the Cure got the power cut off last year right at 10pm, so if it's 9:55 and Robert Plant still hasn't fulfilled your far-fetched hope of performing the entire second side of Led Zeppelin's IV, you're safe to bail.
What to Eat and Drink
I'm still hoping that during his last days in office, along with the usual last-minute pardons, President Obama decrees that all outdoor music festivals shall be forced to provide free drinking water (or else be subject to the Based God Curse). Thankfully, BottleRock already does this, allowing fans to bring in an empty water bottle to be refilled at stations throughout the festival grounds. Hooray!
Food is another matter -- unlike other festivals, you can't bring in your own food. Of course, this is Napa, so the eats on offer at BottleRock are fancy; they can also get pretty expensive, especially in the gourmet food court. I palled alongside food writer Heather Irwin from the Press Democrat last year as she evaluated the culinary aspect of the festival, and we deduced that the best bang for one's buck was found at the food trucks (especially Curry Up Now, Me So Hungry and Drewski's, all of which return this year). The wait times were up to 30 minutes, though, since many seemed to choose the trucks over the gourmet fare, which included $20 pizza and $12 sushi rolls.
Napa Valley, wine wonderland, yadda yadda: if you're interested, here's Heather Irwin's rundown of all the wineries, as well as all the Michelin-starred chefs, destination restaurants and cooking reality-show winners who'll be slinging their creations at BottleRock 2015. The short version: good luck finding a simple hot dog.
Besides the Bands
That said, it's the food vendors who are taking part in the most interesting non-musical feature of BottleRock: a fifth stage hosting collaborations between chefs and musicians. Pulling a page from the Outside Lands handbook, the festival is allowing Flavor Flav, for example, to discuss actual flavor with Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio. The schedule includes 13 of these mashups, which also feature sports figures like Vernon Davis and Fred Couples, but easily the best of the bunch -- and sure to be the most packed -- is Snoop Dogg and Masaharu Morimoto, on stage, together at last. No one knows exactly what's in store for the two, but if you've ever seen Snoop make brownies with Martha Stewart, you know you're in for a treat.
BottleRock runs May 29-31 at the Napa Valley Expo in Napa. Single-day tickets are still available. More details over at BottleRock's site.