Cover me in Napa Valley sunshine: BottleRock 2022
Have you ever been sipping a nice, juicy Cab in Napa Valley, looking out over a sea of tangled grape vines, and thought to yourself, I sure wish Pink was here performing an aerial act? Sure you have… Welcome to BottleRock Napa Valley, a music festival that has brought artists such as Jackson Browne, Train, The Black Crowes, Zac Brown Band, The Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys and Alabama Shakes to the valley since 2013.
2022’s festival, which I attended over Memorial Day weekend, can best be described as lavish. BottleRock was much more laid-back than my last music festival experience at Coachella and catered to a diverse age range. Picture a crowd swirling vintage reds rather than tripping on psychedelic mushrooms. This year’s headliners included Metallica, Pink — who was joined onstage by her 10-year-old daughter Willow to perform their duet, “Cover Me in Sunshine” — Twenty One Pilots and Luke Combs.
Here are three of the most unique and successful components of this year’s BottleRock. Plus, some experiential takeaways that can be applied to your next festival:
1) Culinary tie-ins
Show me someone who goes to music festivals for the food. I’ll wait… While major experiences like the Coachellas and Lollapaloozas of the world have stepped up their food truck game in recent years, most fests still serve hot dogs and pretzels.
BottleRock’s food lineup included gourmet doughnuts, paella, lobster rolls and oysters along with craft cocktails, beer and local wines (here are some of the highlights). Food and drink is a major value prop here. In fact, Napa Valley is home to more Michelin stars per capita than any other wine region on the globe.
BottleRock is also known for its Williams Sonoma Culinary Stage. Chefs and food-world luminaries like Marcus Samuelsson, Andrew Zimmern, Gail Simmons, Roy Choi and Aarón Sánchez took to the stage for cooking demonstrations this year.
XP takeaway: Music festivals don’t have to be ‘all music all the time.’ Attendees want a mash-up of experiences. And need breaks. Get headliners in on other activations, too. At BottleRock, Pink joined Los Angeles chef Roy Choi and Top Chef judge Gail Simmons on the Culinary Stage to take a blind taste test of different ingredients — a signature challenge on the Bravo series. Then, Twenty One Pilots assembled a 21-item burrito with celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez.
2) Authentic (and subtle) sponsorship
Of course, BottleRock’s sponsors included plenty of beverage companies (see point #3 for support). But the inclusion of brands like presenting sponsor JaM — as well as Aperol Spritz, New Moon and Truly — felt more like food-and-wine festival activations than overly promotional, logo-first brand experiences. Organizers lean into their unique positioning in the music festival landscape by emphasizing culinary-forward partnerships.
I’d much rather sip regional wine in a branded glass than have a brand ambassador shove a free water bottle in my face.
There was also a lightness and humor among the sponsor activations. Whiskey maker Monkey Shoulder built a hidden speakeasy on the festival grounds. To enter the secret “Porta-Party Speakeasy” guests had to walk through a nondescript (and non-working!) Porta Potty to dance in the makeshift club. White Panda — the Los Altos electronic dance music producer — deejayed.
XP takeaway: The more attention you put into producing a cool, guest-focused event, the less energy you need to spend talking your sponsors out of branded napkins. Ensure that brand partnerships only ever enhance the on-site experience. Bring on companies that align with both your festival’s point of view and your attendees’ interests. Remember, the more evangelical supporters you have buying tickets, the more control you have over sponsor branding and requests.
3) Location, location, location
Festival founders didn’t choose Napa Valley on a whim. Gabe Meyers, one of the co-founders of Willpower Entertainment (the first BottleRock organizer), described the festival as “a connoisseur’s rock festival for people with a palate.” The idea was to garner interest among Bay Area festival fans — those who knew the region, already had their favorite boutique hotels and wineries, and would happily stick around for an extra day or two to add some live music to their wine-tasting weekend.
By keeping the first year’s audience local, BottleRock allowed for room to grow. But organizers may have underestimated the power of Napa as a tourist destination. This year drew a sold-out crowd of 40,000 attendees.
XP takeaway: As Fyre Festival showed us, a festival’s location can often be an even bigger draw than the headliners. But, as we also learned from Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, location and talent must make sense together. Especially with a new music festival, attach your project to an already in-demand destination. New Orleans, San Diego, Santa Fe and Charleston, SC, are all top tourist spots with gorgeous backdrops for the ‘gram. Not a small island in the Bahamas, where there was physically no way to get the amount of people promised onto said island. Still SMH.
As a San Franciscan, I’m always up for spending a summer weekend in Napa enjoying food, wine, clear skies, and good music.
Bonus points for long weekends in the valley. Getting to Napa may not be as easy for those outside of the Bay Area, but the trek to BottleRock is well worth it. Especially if you want to pack as much wine region culture — music, bevvies, food all mashed up together — into one weekend.
And for those of us who are experiential creators — if you stay true to your location, know your audience really well, and deliver a truly valuable and unexpected experience (sans branded napkins) — you’ll always win.