The annual summer concert series at Robert Mondavi Winery is one of the oldest and most popular music festivals in Napa Valley. For nearly half a century it has hosted some of the greatest jazz performers to ever grace a stage—Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, Dave Brubeck, now all sadly gone—as well as a mix of contemporary acts such as Martina McBride, Chris Isaac, Dave Koz, Ziggy Marley, Los Lobos, Five for Fighting and many more.
The appeal of these performers, if you like the music they play, is unarguable. So, too, is the appeal of the setting—outdoors, at one of the valley’s most famous wineries, in the hazy lazy days of June and July. If you’re planning on attending a show at Mondavi, here are some tips on how to get the most out of your experience:
Get there in plenty of time
The doors open at 5 p.m. or when the performers finish their sound checks. If you have general admission lawn tickets ($55 per person), be sure to get there reasonably early to claim your spot. We arrived around 6:30 p.m. (opening act begins at 7 p.m.), and by then the grass was pretty filled up with picnickers on their blankets and in their chairs. Going early may make it easier with parking too, although arriving at that time did not cause us any problems. There is free parking at Robert Mondavi. As the spaces fill up closest to the winery, you are waved through to the back of the facility onto a vineyard road where you can park. It’s a short distance to the concert area and it was actually pretty cool to walk between the vineyards past the winemaking facilities.
Consider dinner and a show
For those with general admission lawn tickets, high back chairs are not allowed, so be sure to follow the festival’s guidelines for lawn chairs and coolers; if they’re too big you won’t be able to bring them in. Reserve lawn seating is available directly in front of the stage ($85) or on a patio slightly to the right of it ($70); in these cases chairs will be supplied for you.
The full, soup-to-nuts concert experience is dinner and a show ($185). This begins with a stand-up wine tasting followed by a family-style dinner at the back of the concert area on the edge of the To Kalon vineyard. The tables are set up under a gauzy canopy that blocks the glare of the sun. After their meal, when the music begins, diners move from their tables and sit on folding chairs that are set up on a slightly elevated area much like the balcony seats at an indoor concert hall. Rest assured, though, wherever you sit, you will see just fine. It’s a small venue.
Bring your own...food not wine
We brought a picnic dinner with us—sandwiches, chips, water, fresh cherries—because we were attending with a teenage son and we weren’t sure what he was going to want to eat, and how much, and we wanted to be ready for any contingency. Nevertheless we saw two dinner vendors on site—QR&B, which offered pulled pork sandwiches and other barbeque items, and Oakville Grocery featuring blackened chicken, crab cake salad and gumbo. For dessert we had chocolate chip cookie dough at the Ben & Jerry’s stand and chocolate at the Vintage Sweet Shoppe.
By the way, we did see some children there, but not many; the festival seems more an adult thing than a kid thing, no doubt in part because of the simple fact that it’s taking place at a winery. On that score, you cannot bring alcohol into the venue, although you can buy wine there. Only bottles are sold, not drinks by the glass, which actually adds to the picnicky atmosphere of the event. For $30 you can have your choice of Robert Mondavi Chardonnay or Fume Blanc and an ice bucket and two glasses. Wine sales stop at around 8 p.m. when the headline act begins.
Act fast, see the art, shoot away!
The opening act plays for a half hour or so and often announces its final song to the audience. When you hear the words “And this is our last song…” let that be your signal to slyly steal away from your seat to be first to Ben & Jerry’s or to go to the bathroom. The night we were there the line into the ladies room at intermission was, alas, quite a bit longer than the one into the men’s. Intermission is also an excellent time to stroll around and see the menagerie of Benny Bufano sculpted animals at the winery. The great California artist died in 1970, the year after the Mondavi series debuted with a concert by the Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra. One more note: In keeping with the casual nature of the event, feel free to film away with your smart phone, unusual for many concert venues which restrict such things.
Bask in the glow
There are two areas set aside for dancing—the patio in front of the QR&B stand and a romantically lit patio on the opposite side. You can also shake your body on the aisles along the sides and the center aisle in back. The sun can be bright in the late afternoon so you may wish to bring a shade umbrella, but once the music begins it has to come down so as to not block the view of those behind you. But after it drops below the winery building the sun becomes an afterthought and the weather becomes ridiculously pleasant.
Bring a sweatshirt or light wrap because it can cool down at night but really, the best advice is: Bask in the glow. You’re out amidst God’s green earth on a beautiful summer’s eve. A crescent moon hangs above you in the night sky and the hills to the west have darkened. You’re listening to music you enjoy. Best of all, you’re there with someone you care about or even love—a friend or a date or your spouse or perhaps all three rolled into one. All in all, it’s a nice night out.
Robert Mondavi Winery, 7801 St. Helena Highway, Oakville. 1-888-766-6328 ext. 3. Be sure to consult the website’s “Concert FAQs” for specifics on tickets, chair and cooler restrictions and other concert issues.