BottleRock’s Dave Graham Talks ‘Reeling And Healing’ In Napa Valley

Dave Graham
– Dave Graham

Dave Graham is CEO of BottleRock Napa Valley, the promoter that bought the eponymous food, wine and music festival out of bankruptcy and turned it into one of the country’s top destination festivals in the span of just a few short years.

After its 2013 debut, the original BottleRock and its owners found themselves mired in millions of dollars worth of debt, unpaid vendors and a tarnished brand. Graham, along with his business partners, decided to take a huge risk not only to save the festival but retain the brand and restore its goodwill to the residents and businesses of Napa, Calif.

Graham and BottleRock are a smashing, and resilient, success story. In addition to the festival’s difficult beginnings, Napa itself endured a 6.6 earthquake in 2014 and, in September, devastating wildfires that will take years for the region to fully recover from.

That disaster underscores BottleRock’s mission in 2018 to be part the healing part of what Graham called the “reeling and healing” of California’s Wine Country, with a lineup full of artists known for uplifting, dance party performances.

Headlined by Bruno Mars, The Killers, Muse, and The Chainsmokers and featuring close to 80 more artists including Halsey, Snoop Dogg, The Head And The Heart, Billy Idol, and Thievery Corporations, BottleRock takes place May 25-27 in the heart of Napa. It will again feature the array of food, wine and craft beer and chef/rock star collaborations this unique festival has become known for.

 You’ve always booked an interesting mix of artists for BottleRock. What’s your booking philosophy?

I don’t book what I like, but when you are looking at Shakey Graves or St. Paul & The Broken Bones, or Revivalists, that is for us quintessential NorCal. We partner with Lagunitas [Brewing Company], too, so a lot of the bands that they like, we like.

You had a short window your first year. How many years have you been doing this now?

It’s BottleRock’s sixth festival and our fifth. When we took over in January 2014 we only had three months to put on our first festival, so we aren’t even close to being in this space five years, yet we’re doing our fifth festival.

That first year almost killed us financially and emotionally, just to clean it up. But we saw something was there; something special. In retrospect, everyone who said we were crazy were right but, at the same time, we were also right to do something unique with doing a festival smack dab in the center of Napa Valley, and delivering on that brand promise for Napa Valley. So, we are happy that we made that leap.

Between fires and earthquakes and the first disaster and you’ve shown real resiliency. How is everything going now?

It’s a slow process because, as one would expect, redoing or reconstructing a home isn’t just a function of rebuilding. It’s more than just building a home back again and I feel bad to try to speak for other people who had losses that I can never understand, to lose their possessions, their homes and, in some cases, their loved ones. No one can truly understand what that’s like.

Then, in the aftermath, you’re dealing with rubble. And that rubble can’t be moved unless it is moved in a very concise and precise kind of way as hazardous material. A lot of the homes are still in rubble that hasn’t even been cleared.

Then there’s the process of insurance and redesigning your home and getting that approved. Napa and Sonoma counties are just in the beginning of that rebuilding and healing period. I think that rebuilding period will be here for a long time to come.

One of our team members lost his home. Numerous friends lost their homes. I was evacuated for 10 days but ended up being very fortunate when our home made it. But it was difficult.

We ended up helping out as we could and ended up doing three benefit concerts – one with Train, one with Counting Crows, and then Michael Franti & Spearhead. We helped how we could with money but we’re still reeling and healing as a community.

The venue, at Napa’s fairgrounds, wasn’t damaged, though?

The winds were incredible up here and unlike anything else we’d ever experienced. The venue itself was a staging area for hundreds and hundreds of fire trucks and fire crews in the thousands so it served a dual purpose and we were happy to see it serve in that way.

This year will be a special year for the community, because so many from the community get involved with BottleRock and I think that many are looking forward to 2018’s lineup and festival.

Let’s talk about the lineup.

We are very lucky this year and I think it will be a lineup that celebrates music by and for all generations. There’s something for everyone. Bruno Mars fits the bill in that regard. His music and performance speaks to people of all generations and we’re very fortunate to have him the lineup.

You don’t book a lineup for a theme but if there is one, it’s fun but also upbeat. You look at Bruno Mars, Chainsmokers, Earth Wind & Fire, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and you know it’s going to be a dance party. Trombone Shorty is going to be wild. Thievery Corporation is a different style of music, but it’s a party and hard not to dance. By far, I’d say the lineup is deeper than we’ve ever had it.

The culinary stages have been a big hit, matching artists and celebrities with chefs.

It is a big deal up here and obviously on brand with what people want – food and wine – when they come to Napa Valley. They love the pairing of artists with chefs and celebrities and this irreverent programing that is not contrived. Let them be who they are and what happens on the stage is so fun and entertaining – thousands show up. We definitely lean into it with money, resources and production. It is a priority and then some. We do roughly 15 shows on that stage alone and we do, in addition to the 80-plus artist performers, about 40 additional performances throughout the three days, wither it’s the culinary program, the VIP acoustic sets, and the acoustic sets from the JaM Cellar stage, in addition to the schedule.

 You came into this festival business with no concert business history at all and turned what should have been a disaster into a triumph. How did you do it?

We ended up turning or weakness into a strength. Our weakness was great in that we were not coming from the festival or the music business, not having any context as to how things were done. It made it really hard in the beginning for us, but we ended up doing things the way we thought they should be done – delivering on what we thought people coming to Napa Valley wanted – and did it our way. It ended up being very different from what you would expect or experience from another festival.