Weed in wine country: my weekend at BottleRock
What do you get when you combine three days of diverse music, celebrity chefs, phenomenal libations, gourmet food, and top-shelf cannabis in the heart of California wine country? The answer can only be BottleRock.
Now in its tenth year, the BottleRock experience is truly unique. Where else can you enjoy Michelin-level food while sipping high-end wine (or cannabis) while rocking out to some of the biggest artists on the planet?
This year’s musical headliners included Post Malone, Lizzo, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, with Lil Nas X, Duran Duran, Billy Strings, The Smashing Pumpkins, Wu-Tang Clan, and dozens of other acts. The allure of seeing Keanu Reeves reunite with his band Dogstar was enough for some to purchase a one-day wristband, with the headliners a mere afterthought.
What started as a celebration of the quaint yet boujee Napa area soon evolved into an energetic and inclusive weekend of fun meant to draw in guests ready to enjoy the finer things in life—including cannabis. “The Garden,” a plant-centric area featuring an array of brands, is fairly new to BottleRock, but based on how busy the area was over the weekend, it’s clearly welcomed in a big way.
I have to start by saying I have very little festival experience. I’ve never been to Coachella, Stagecoach, or any other gathering of the social media elite. Aside from some Northwoods wook jam weekends and a visit to Ozzfest 2003, I entered BottleRock with zero frame of reference. The spirit of adventure and exploration was my guide.
The parallels between weed and wine culture are profound, something I sought to explore further during my time at BottleRock. And when I asked people their thoughts on having the two intertwined at a mainstream event such as this, the common answer was simply, “Why not?”
The BottleRock experience: something for everyone
Wandering around the sprawling (yet remarkably easy to navigate) festival grounds, the sensory overload was remarkable from the jump.
The first thing I noticed was the crowd. There were people from all walks of life—black-clad Gen Xers, refined wine experts in their Sunday finest, dudes wearing boat shoes and loud graphic button-downs, teens donning cowboy hats and glitter, and lots of probable Burning Man camp members armed with plenty of crystals.
I was also awe-struck by how many different types of activities and activations there were to choose from. In addition to the four music stages, there was an EDM club sponsored by Liquid Death, a silent disco, a spa filled with wellness brands (and, of course, crystal vendors), a culinary garden complete with a stage where celebrity chefs were joined by BottleRock performers for live cooking demos, and even a special children’s area with age-appropriate activities like face painting and arts ‘n crafts.
But for me, The Garden was the place to be.
The Garden brings together cannabis aficionados of all types
I spent the better part of day one in The Garden, engaging with the brands and the smiling consumers eager to explore and spin a prize wheel between performances.
While the vast majority of booths in The Garden lacked the over-the-top theatrics of the larger alcohol brand activations (a sign of the cannabis market times, perhaps), there was still plenty to see.
GreenState shared booth space with Sonoma Hills Farm, an appropriate partner given the environment. Jake Wall, chief innovation officer of Maison Bloom, a high-end cannabis-infused beverage line that utilized Sonoma Hills Farm’s flower, was on hand to share (non-medicated) samples. The line spilled out of the tent the entire weekend, fitting for a region known for its tastings.
Another booth that saw an enthusiastic line was American Weed Company. The Veteran-focused brand had a secret speakeasy accessible via a locker in the back of the company’s booth. Featuring kamikaze karaoke, a type of karaoke where a random song is selected for the performer, the cramped space had a jubilant crowd ready to sing along.
BottleRock marks baby steps with regard to cannabis
Technically speaking, cannabis consumption was prohibited in The Garden—and anywhere at BottleRock, for that matter. But looking around the open-air lounge space within the area (and the throngs of people in front of the stages), it was clear the rules were meant to be broken. Security seemingly turned a blind eye to folks sharing joints, with one guard telling me, “This is California!”
It was a different story with regard to cannabis sales. It may have been one thing for BottleRock attendees to light up, but the brands stuck to their guns when it came to distribution. If someone did want to try one of the products on display, they could place an order through Weedmaps and head to Abide dispensary directly across from the BottleRock gate to collect.
Unfortunately, the system was not entirely perfect. Some festival attendees with one-day wristbands were warned by security that if they left the event, they would not be able to return, leaving them dry and not quite high. I asked Dustin Moore, co-founder of cannabis retailer Embarc, if on-site sales would one day be permitted at BottleRock, something already seen at other Embarc-sponsored events like Outside Lands in San Francisco.
“We’re very close,” Moore said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if next year or the year after we see on-site sales.”
Despite the hiccups, the majority of the weed fans I spoke with were more than happy with the current state of affairs. Michael Cambell, who I met in the crowd while waiting for bluegrass wunderkind Billy Strings to take the stage, was just glad not to have to sneak his stash into the show in his socks.
“This is my first time here, I like that people can smoke in public and not have that stigma,” Cambell said in between hits from his friend’s Trainwreck joint. “I’ve been going to Lollapalooza since 1994, and at that age, you had to sneak things in and really be aware of everything around you.”
BottleRock cuisine a cannabis consumer’s dream
After a marathon of interviews, I decided to get into the spirit of the season. I ground up some mystery flower from Oni Seed Co. from their recent pheno hunt. Dubbed A26, the aroma was reminiscent of fresh-cut grass, while the high was pleasantly energetic.
Appropriately, I soon found myself craving a snack and decided to scope out my options. Ignorant of the reputation wine country has for their Michelin-level dining options, I had no clue the food at BottleRock would be in the same vein.
While I was unable to procure the viral $26 caviar-topped VIP corndog that was only available in the VIP area, I did have the good fortune to try a few incredibly fantastic dishes over my two days at BottleRock.
I tend to be indecisive in general, but after a bit of weed, all bets are off. Fortunately, every choice seemed to be a good one in this situation, so I felt confident. I settled on a mushroom empanada from El Porteño; the chimichurri sauce was mind-blowing, and if I weren’t in such dignified company, I likely would have licked the plastic cup clean.
In addition to the empanada, I enjoyed some delightfully fresh ceviche from Napa Yard as well as the flavorful coconut chicken curry stylings of Osha Thai. While waiting for my curry, a man walked past with paella from Gerard’s, and I did a double take, promising to seek it out the next day. When my friend recommended the same paella later that day via social media, I knew I had a winner.
I also couldn’t help but notice the consistently long line wrapped around the Humphry Slocombe ice cream truck. As a fan of exotic ice creams who is often low on time, I knew I had to carefully plan if I wanted to secure a scoop. I told myself I would wait until a big act was on stage when the food area would be quiet, manifesting my sugar high in the not-so-distant future.
As a cannabis consumer, the music at BottleRock was indeed a vibe, but the dizzying amount of culinary options was truly the icing on the cake. Weed smokers love to snack, and if I had unlimited time and budget, I probably would have spent the majority of my time this weekend eating. But alas, I was only at BottleRock for two days, and in addition to covering the event, I also had to see at least a bit of the music.
Performances transcend genres and generations
The fine wine, gourmet food, and fire cannabis available at BottleRock is all well and good, but this event is all about the music. More than 75 performers graced the four stages at the festival over the course of three days, offering everything from classic rock to hip-hop, pop, funk, and a whole lot more.
I was only able to catch a handful of acts, and I kicked myself for not sticking around for day 3 when Red Hot Chili Peppers closed the show. In my observation, the audience often matched the energy of whoever was on stage–a fascinating anthropological study.
My first foray into the BottleRock JaM Cellars stage (the largest of the four) was for the tail-end of Bastille. The British pop-rockers closed with mega-hit Pompeii, seeing the crowd happily bouncing along with the beat. I was eagerly awaiting the psychedelic bluegrass stylings of Billy Strings, my personal “must-see” for the weekend.
Billy and his band did not disappoint, with clouds of smoke wafting over his loyal legion of fans. Strings broke into several extended jams during his 75-minute set, hitting the crowd hard from the jump with a rousing rendition of “The Fire on My Tongue.” When Strings introduced “California Sober,” his ode to the lifestyle growing in popularity across the country, a number of smiling fans appropriately lit another joint.
Midway through Billy Strings’ performance, I noticed a growing number of teenagers around me. I quickly realized they were hoping to secure a good spot for Post Malone, who was set to take the stage immediately after. Post’s brooding set saw the Grammy-winning singer celebrate his daughter’s first birthday, saluting the crowd multiple times with a red solo cup, saying, “You’ll need to be drunk for this set.”
The audience definitely took Post’s advice—that’s all I have to say on that.
Day two saw a seemingly more subdued crowd at BottleRock. Despite there being more people as far as I could tell, there was far less stumbling than the night before. The wine was certainly flowing, but I wondered if more folks opted for microdose pills or gummies.
For me, the musical highlight on Saturday was Nile Rodgers and Chic, whose upbeat, funked-out performance called to me from across the grounds. Leon Bridges’ smooth set also did not disappoint, perfectly paired with a glass of cabernet and a joint of Pink Jesus from Sonoma Hills Farm.
When Lizzo took the stage at 8:15 sharp, all bets were off. Despite seeing offensive signs with phrases like “Choke the Woke” outside the BottleRock venue, Lizzo’s energy was unapologetically upbeat, sexy, and affirming.
Clad in a body-hugging black leather jumpsuit, the multi-platinum rapper and singer blew the crowd away immediately. Joined by an all-female band and her backup dancers aka the Big Grrrls, Lizzo brought the thunder with every body-positive minute of her set. Seeing Lizzo twerk while flawlessly playing her flute was a pivotal moment in my life so far.
During an affirmation break in Lizzo’s set, I decided to make a move to secure my scoop of Humphry Slocomb ice cream. On the other side of the truck, Duran Duran was rocking the Verizon stage. The cool part about BottleRock is how intimate the venue is, making it easy for attendees to wander between stages with ease.
I returned to the JaM Cellars stage just in time for a string of Lizzo’s biggest hits: “Truth Hurts,” “Good as Hell,” and “Juice”. After her high-energy set, I quickly returned to the Verizon stage to see the end of Duran Duran. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the performance and promised myself I would explore more of the English band’s catalog post-show.
Weed and wine: kindred spirits
Despite wine being the central theme at BottleRock, I realized Sunday morning that I hadn’t done enough exploring of Napa’s claim to fame. Aside from my visit to the Acumen booth, I just hadn’t had the time. In my unrelenting quest for journalistic knowledge, I decided to stop by a small cafe and tasting room on my way out of town to SFO.
At Sonoma’s Best, I spent the better part of an hour chatting with Casey Castanera, a local wine enthusiast who was eager to share. He surmised that the vintner community was initially slow to embrace cannabis, despite the two worlds being more alike than different, but that the integration is happening whether it’s realized or not.
“It’s been a tough pill to swallow for some of the wine folks,” Castanera said. “(But) wine at its core fundamentally is agriculture, it’s farmers. You know what else people farm? Weed! There are so many parallels that are going to be drawn, and I think that is something that’s often overlooked. They’re both under one big umbrella that we know as art.”
The sign outside of Sonoma’s Best read “20 Dry Wines,” but I quickly noticed the vast array of champagne bottles displayed behind the counter. Castanera explained the differences between “production” and “grower” producers, with the latter being small craft brands who, at one point, banded together to take on the big guys with their “Special Club” releases.
I quickly called out the parallels between the grower-producers in the Champagne region of France and the plight of legacy craft cannabis cultivators in the Emerald Triangle, and their struggle to survive. Castanera and I were once again struck by this unknown kinship, and I left the tasting room filled with inspiration.
BottleRock is the quintessential slice of wine country, giving visitors and locals alike the chance to discover what Napa Valley is all about. As cannabis slowly but surely becomes a part of the narrative, it’s only a matter of time before the plant’s presence is more prominent at events like BottleRock. Hopefully, next year, we see on-site sales, more booths, and even more people exploring the wide world of weed in wine country.