The guy next to me in line for a glass of Cep rosé at last weekend's Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco had come all the way from Hawaii to see the Kings of Leon and a few other bands. But, he told me, "I can't believe I'm spending so much time in the wine tent."
I could believe it. SF's Outside Lands festival, which is in its third year, is superficially similar to many of the other enormous rock extravaganzas like Coachella and Bonnaroo that are so popular these days: multiple stages, myriad high-profile bands, masses of people. But it's also different in that, apropos of its Bay Area setting, it features wine almost as prominently as it does music. In fact, with a lineup lacking the marquee bands of years past like Radiohead and Wilco, there were more rock stars of California wine this year than there were Top 40 icons. The wine tent included some of California's hippest offerings: Pinot Noir from Copain and Whetstone, Tocai Friulano from Palmina, Syrah from Peay and Wind Gap, Abraxas white blend from Sinskey, Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet from Ridge—all brilliantly selected by Wine Director Peter Eastlake, who owns the Vintage Berkeley wine shops in the East Bay. And many of the tables had the winemaker standing by to chat up interested drinkers.
On the face of it, a plan to sell fine wine to young rockers at a festival might seem destined to fail. At $8 to $15 for a four-ounce glass, it's much easier to imagine the noise-addled masses going for beer or soda than for a glass of obscure Trousseau Gris from Wind Gap. But the wine tent was packed. By late afternoon on the first day, Andy Peay of the Sonoma Coast's Peay Vineyards (Cep is his second label) told me, shouting over the crowd, "I've sold seven cases of wine today. Two cases of Peay Syrah at 15 bucks a glass." Other winemakers reported similar success. Steve Clifton of Palmina mentioned that his booth had been four deep for over an hour earlier in the day.
Maybe the success of the wine tent shouldn't be such a surprise. The image of the wine snob that I grew up with is becoming a thing of the past. Wine is truly becoming a mainstream beverage. Rob Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, one of the most articulate winemakers in California, talked on a conference call before the festival about how important it is to market wine to a new generation and in places that might not be considered "traditional" wine venues. It's about "making wine less precious, and bridging that gap and making it approachable," he said. The youngest wine-drinking generation "has grown up with refined tastes, whether it's choosing between Peet's or Starbucks or microbrews. They've learned to have a discretionary palate."
But, of course, wine and music just seem to have an affinity for each other anyway. Sometimes a great wine will never taste better than when the right song is playing in the background. Winemaking guru Clark Smith has explored this topic cognitively. But it's also visceral. As Palmina's Clifton told me, "My first career was in music, so any time rock ’n' roll and wine cross paths, I've got to be a part of it." Just after a shirtless Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello bounced around onstage with a bottle of The Prisoner in his hand, Clifton talked a little bit about the similarities between the wine life and the rock life. "There's a lot of crossover," he said. "Every spring I kind of feel like I'm going on tour selling wine. I go to New York, Chicago, Atlanta, DC, Texas, Oklahoma, and so on, performing wine tastings in each city. It feels a lot like when I'd go on tour and play music. Plus, the hangovers are really similar too."
Top wine picks of the festival:
2009 Cep Rosé, Peay Vineyards—Early-picked Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir grapes make this dedicated rosé just about perfect: Light, crisp, dry, and mineral, it refreshes while still offering great concentration and savor.
2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Red, Ridge Vineyards—This Cab-Merlot–Petit Verdot blend is drinkable right now, with lush black fruit and gorgeous smoky-earthy aromas. Great structure from acidity and ripe tannins to boot.
2009 Tocai Friulano, Palmina Wines—This hay-colored wine is beautifully balanced between lightness and mouth-pleasing weight. Savory herbal flavors mix with bright citrus and apple. Ideal with food, it also works as a zesty apéritif.