Business

How Vina Robles Amphitheatre turned wine country into a top-notch concert destination

Vina Robles Amphitheater in Paso Robles.
Vina Robles Amphitheater in Paso Robles.

If you think about some of the concerts that Vina Robles Vineyards and Winery hosts at its eastside Paso Robles amphitheater — acts such as rockers Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie or the August show by metal legend Slayer — it can seem a bit incongruous.

“It’s kind of odd to think about Slayer playing at a winery, but it seems to be working,” said Paul Leatherman, the amphitheater’s general manager. “We just clear out the front and let it be a mosh pit.”

Now in its fifth season, the Vina Robles Amphitheatre was conceived as a way to promote the winery but evolved quickly into a destination in its own right, attracting a range of well-known artists, enthusiastic audiences and accolades from promoters and tour managers.

“What this venue has accomplished in just four years is truly remarkable,” said Alex Hodges, CEO of Los Angeles-based Nederlander Concerts, which books and promotes Vina Robles’ concerts. “Vina Robles has redefined live music on the Central Coast.”

With a seating capacity of 3,300 — almost triple that of the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo — and high production quality, the venue draws shows that wouldn’t have come to the region before, Hodges and others say.

“They filled a need that was unmet in the area before,” said Todd Newman, who built SLO Brew into a prized music destination and now books shows around the county with wife Korie under Good Medicine Presents.

And the diverse programming, especially in the Latino and alt-rock/metal categories, amplifies the options available to Central Coast concertgoers, Newman said.

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Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles. Photos by Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“People have more opportunity to imbibe the culture that appeals to them.”

Following an initial investment of about $10 million for construction and startup, according to Vina Robles managing partner Hans Michel, the amphitheater turned a small profit for the first time last season, which stretches from spring to fall.

“The first few years were tough,” said Michel, who co-owns Vina Robles with Switzerland-based proprietor Hans Nef. “But it’s a profit center now, and a great marketing tool.”

The venue sold $3.5 million in tickets in 2016, a 33 percent increase over the previous year. The 30 shows, including a half dozen sellouts and the rest averaging just under 2,000 people each, brought just shy of 60,000 people through the doors, compared to about 20,000 the first year.

Nederlander, as the producer, keeps the lion’s share of ticket revenue, while Vina Robles collects revenue from concession sales, season tickets and sponsorships. While he declined to share specific figures, Michel said shows might sell about 40 cases of wine or a few dozen kegs of beer, depending on whether it’s more of a wine or beer crowd.

Anecdotally, Michel hears from hotels and restaurants that concerts boost their business, an economic impact he plans to study in the future. But the concept, first and foremost, he said, is to promote the wine.

“Many people come to a show and try our wine for the first time,” he said. “And some join the winery just to get access to early ticket sales,” a perk of the Vina Robles wine club.

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Vina Robles managing partner and president Hans Michel said the winery has ambitious expansion plans. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Part of a bigger vision

The amphitheater isn’t the winery’s only ambitious project. Starting with its first vineyard plantings in 1997 and the opening of the hospitality center in 2007, Vina Robles is now embarking on construction of a state-of-the-art production facility at its Huerhuero vineyard off Union Road, having outgrown shared space in San Miguel.

The two-year project — which Michel said will cost significantly more than the amphitheater — will boost capacity to 100,000 cases, though the winery plans incremental growth from its current 40,000 cases.

The winery, with distribution in 30 states and Switzerland, still sells the vast majority of grapes from its 1,110 acres of SIP-certified vineyards around Paso Robles, about 85 percent, keeping the best of the crop for its estate wines crafted by winemaker Kevin Willenborg.

When the new facility is complete, the offices adjacent to the winery’s spacious tasting room and hospitality center on Mill Road off Highway 46 East will move to the new building. That frees up the existing space for a possible restaurant, if economic conditions are right, Michel said.

The winery owners are also reviving a decade-old project delayed by the recession, developing a gated community of custom homes surrounded by working vineyards. Gran Cielo de Vina Robles is offering 42 acre-plus homesites set among the 864-acre Huerhuero property, kicking off with two spec homes being built this spring.

The amphitheater was initially conceived as a much smaller project, but a consultant saw potential for a larger venue and the city of Paso Robles expressed interest, Michel said.

“So many wineries do music now, we decided we had to do it big or let it be,” he said.

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At the Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Building a top-notch venue

From the performers and bookers standpoint, the venue is hard to beat. Hodges, whose company promotes and produces shows throughout the state and country, now points to Vina Robles as the new standard for others trying to create a top-notch venue.

“From load-in to load-out, Vina Robles offers a first-class experience,” he said, noting it was nominated in November as one of eight finalists for Best Small Outdoor Venue by Pollstar, a trade magazine for the concert industry. “It’s a better venue than you see in the 3,000-range about anywhere.”

The venue — a zero-waste facility where everything is recycled or composted — offers five bays for trucks and buses to haul in equipment, four air-conditioned dressing rooms, a commercial kitchen that can feed up to 60 people backstage and the ability to hang nearly any sort of lights, speakers or props the artists desire.

It takes more than 100 part-time workers to put on a show, depending on the size, including about 35 ushers, up to 35 stagehands, 15 parking attendants, 30 concession workers and about 30 security personnel.

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Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

From the audience perspective, there’s nary a bad seat in the house, with an expansive 65-by-40-foot stage wrapped with seats that average about 100 feet from the stage, going from auditorium-style seats in the front to small VIP box seats, general admission lawn seating and high-top tables at the back.

While no major changes are planned, the Vina Robles team continues to tweak amenities. Before the current season kicked off with David Crosby and Friends on April 25, the venue expanded the Petite Terrace, a patio reserved for VIPs and season ticket holders that offers a private bar and restrooms, premium parking, its own menu, and beer and wine specials.

The main plaza — with concessions from Apple Farm and SeaVenture resorts, bars with Vina Robles wine, Firestone Walker Brewing Co. beers and other beverages, a wood-fired pizza oven and plenty of room for socializing — will remain largely the same. But a secondary bar used at times for meet-and-greets with the bands is getting some upgrades.

They’re also expanding a drop-off/pick-up area for people hailing rides and are working on strategies to improve traffic flow out onto Mill Road and Highway 46 East after shows, when hundreds of cars are leaving at once.

Vina Robles and Nederlander are also working together to refine the venue’s offerings.

Classic rock and comedy both do well, Leatherman said, noting that comedian Amy Schumer sold out quickly and Chicago came close. Country and “winery music” like Jackson Browne and Chris Isaak also draw good showings, and some of the heavy metal and Latin bands have been surprise hits.

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Vina Robles Amphitheatre general manager Paul Leatherman has found that both classic rock and comedy do well at the venue. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“We’re both getting better at figuring out what’s going to play well here,” Leatherman said.

Vina Robles isn’t the only place to increase concert offerings around the county in recent years. Both Avila Beach Resort and Pozo Saloon have upped their programming, and more wineries and breweries are offering live music.

“I was operating under the impression that something was gonna give, but it never happened,” Newman said. “The market continues to support all venues. It’s been a nice bounce for everybody.”

Tom Keffury oversees sponsorships and publicity for the California Mid-State Fair, whose grandstand concerts can draw up to 15,000 fans. He agreed that concerts are unique in that one show doesn’t seem to affect sales for another.

“If one of your favorite artists is coming to Paso Robles, my guess is that you are going to go see them, regardless of the venue,” he said.

While Leatherman said he is pleased with the young venue’s success so far, he and others are still working hard to spread the word and draw more concertgoers.

“At any given show still, for half the crowd it’s their first time here. But now we’re on their radar and they’ll return,” he said. “This place is hard to beat around dusk with the sun setting and beer or wine in hand.”

Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at sallybuffalo@gmail.com or on Twitter @sallybuffalo.

Vina Robles Amphitheatre

3800 Mill Road, Paso Robles

805-286-3680

www.vinaroblesamphitheatre.com

General manager: Paul Leatherman

Schedule available online. Box office open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and on show days through intermission.

Vina Robles Vineyards and Winery

3700 Mill Road, Paso Robles

805-227-4812

www.vinarobles.com

Founder/proprietor: Hans Nef

Managing partner/president: Hans Michel

Winemaker: Kevin Willenborg

Tasting room open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (and until 6 p.m. May through October). Lunch, tapas selections, chocolate and cheese pairings available.

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