Let me start from the beginning...
The first time I ever visited Napa Valley was in July of 2001 when I performed at the Robert Mondavi Winery summer concert series. Margrit Mondavi founded this series in 1969 and it has been going strong ever since. For awhile, they showcased contemporary jazz from the mid-90’s thru the mid-2000’s so I was lucky enough to be invited a few times. Each time I went there, I was unfortunately just in and out while on tour so I never got to enjoy what Napa Valley had to offer; the wine tasting, restaurants, etc. I knew I liked the vibe, but didn’t have the chance to immerse myself in it...yet!
The following year in October of 2002, I was in Chicago performing at a piano store on the north side showcasing the Mason & Hamlin piano. After the show, the national sales manager of Mason (Cecil Ramirez) took Michelle and I out for dinner to Maggiano’s. While we were waiting for a table, we sat down at the bar and that’s when Cecil introduced me to the first bottle of wine that changed my life....a 1996 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Up to that point, I had never had a glass of wine that tasted remotely like this. I was just ordering the ‘house’ Merlot and was merely content, never excited. The Silver Oak was the first glass that actually made me shut my eyes while drinking it and really enjoy all of the complex flavors. Cecil taught Michelle and I how to swirl the glass, look at the coloring, properly take in the aroma and then finally how to taste it. A whole new world opened up and I was ready to jump in!
A couple years later in the fall of 2004, Michelle ended up going to Florence, Italy to study voice and Italian. During her time there, she discovered a specific type of wine from the Tuscany region called Brunello di Montalcino. This is a very earthy ‘old’ vine tasting red and it went oh so well with all of the paninis, pastas, pizzas and risotto dishes. Upon her return to Los Angeles three months later, she was not only fluent in Italian but had a special affinity for Brunellos and started searching for them in LA. She would fire up the panini grill for lunch and open up the Brunello and I would say, “Wow, wine everyday for lunch AND dinner?? You’re a total lush now!” Her reply, “What?!! That’ s how they do it in Italy!!” Boy was I glad that’s how they do it there, because I was the recipient of the most incredible lunches and dinners from then on!!
For our 10th wedding anniversary in October of 2007, Michelle suggested that we take a trip to Napa Valley since she had never been there and I hadn’t been there in three years (due to the Mondavi summer series veering away from jazz). I loved this idea and started calling all the friends I knew that might know where to go and what to do while in Napa including a chef from Grayton Beach, FL, Johnny Earles, who told me to go to Miner Family Winery to meet his friend, Dave Miner. I ended up meeting many other great people while on our trip including Jeff Gargiulo (GV) and David Duncan (Silver Oak), who are both musicians. Jeff actually puts on an annual jam session at Gargiulo Vineyards each October called the Oakville Sessions and I ended up sitting in and jamming with him, David, Cecil and all the other great musicians plus Michelle even sang an aria. Of course, I told David that day about my ‘bottle story‘ of when Cecil introduced me to Silver Oak a few years earlier. It was a great day full of food, wine, music and new friends.
The next day, I took Johnny’s advice and stopped by Miner Family Winery and as soon as we walked into the tasting room, I heard this big voice yell from across the room, “Brian...Brian Culbertson...is that you?” I said, “Yep, that’s me! Who are you?” His name was Steve Gage who happened to be working in the tasting room that day and was also a big fan of smooth jazz who had seen me play a few times in the Bay Area at the old Kimball’s East and also at Yoshi’s. Michelle and I walked up to the tasting bar and Steve proceeded to pour their entire inventory of wine for us. We absolutely hit it off and ended up keeping in touch after that as he would always bring wine for the band when we played nearby.
That was the trip that sealed the deal for me in terms of the Napa lifestyle. We tried Prager port for the first time, had espresso and a granola parfait overlooking the vineyards one morning, went to the cheese shop at Oxbow Market, stocked up with snacks at Oakville Grocery, ate Cindy’s famous Mustards burger. I was hooked! From then on, I couldn’t wait to try new wines, recipes, plan other trips up there and meet new people. At that point in 2007, the jazz festival idea hadn’t even entered my mind, but I suppose it was slowly growing in my subconscious.
It wasn’t until May of 2011 that the idea hit me. By then, I had performed at many of the major jazz festivals around the world, curated and hosted the All-Star Smooth Jazz Cruise, guested on 10 other jazz cruises and appeared on tons of other events and concerts. I suppose I was ready to take on an event of my own, one that encompassed everything that I loved about others and without the stuff I didn’t like. One that had my personal stamp all over it from the music, the artwork, the schedule, the wines, the food, the website, the t-shirts, the everything! I thought Napa Valley was the perfect place to hold the event since there was an obvious lack of contemporary jazz in the area and since it was a tourist destination that people wanted to visit anyway...plus, it was a great excuse to have to go up there more often :)
After batting some initial thoughts around with Michelle, I called my buddy Steve Gage and ran the rough idea by him for the original concept of a weekend wine and jazz event set in Napa Valley. I think we talked on the phone for hours just brainstorming idea after idea. After that, the next step was to put some ideas down on paper and present it to management, David Britz. To my excitement, he embraced the idea right away and said we should definitely run with it. He did offer a warning however that we were about to be embarking on a massive undertaking. I was ready to take it on and dove in head first planning a trip up to Napa to meet with Gage and to talk with as many people as I could.
I flew up there the third week of June and at first, everyone was receptive to the idea but cautious too. They suggested the festival should be in one of the ‘shoulder’ seasons (November, March or April) since the valley was already so busy in the summer and early fall. So, I started plans to launch the first event (then still unnamed) in November of 2012. During the rest of that summer of 2011, I spent as much time as possible in between touring formulating ideas and meeting with more and more people. I also wasn’t fully committed to doing the event in November as the weather can be very unpredictable then (potentially cold and rainy). So I figured out the one weekend that most people said was maybe a possibility, the 2nd weekend of June which was just after the Napa Valley Wine Auction (one of the largest wine auctions in the world) and just before school was let out in the middle of June.
I then called Peter Williams who was the new director of the Napa Valley Opera House (he was formerly the booker at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland who had booked me there several times) and put the dates on hold. Once we were set at the Opera House, it was time to lock in a hotel partner. This proved to be one of the biggest challenges but ultimately, The Westin Verasa came to the table with great enthusiasm.
It was starting to shape up but we still didn’t have a name for the event. All of the standard names came to mind; The Napa Valley Jazz Festival, Brian Culbertson’s Napa Jazz Fest, etc. None of these really captured the essence of what this was turning into. This wasn’t a typical jazz festival to where people showed up, all the acts came on and played for an hour and left, then the next act and so on and so forth. This was more like a jazz cruise but on land (a land cruise). Not just a weekend festival but a true vacation. So, Michelle started searching for keywords that were associated with resort spas and found one word that stood out. She said to use ‘Getaway’. That was it! I knew we needed the words ‘Napa Valley’ and ‘Jazz’ but hadn’t found the final component until then. It was at last complete and ready to be sent to the graphic designers to come up with a logo.
Several weeks went by and all of the submissions were less than stellar. I was back up in Napa again that November (I had been going once a month since June) and showed Oliver Caldwell (of Caldwell Snyder Gallery) some of the initial designs. Luckily for us, Oliver came up with an amazing new logo design that same afternoon after I had left, one that was square in nature and that was full of color and pizzazz. It was exactly right and blew me away the instant I saw it later that evening. He also put it up against a painting that he had in his gallery by one of the artists that he represented, Ross Penhall. Ross paints landscapes and had recently done a series of vineyards of which this new logo fit right into.
Once the logo was done, things started kicking into high gear with the website design, detailed event planning with David Britz, Luke Pierce and the entire team, social media teasing (I started posting on Facebook and Twitter, “stay tuned for a big announcement coming January 1st, 2012”), and finally artist recruiting. I knew I wanted my friends to join me so I just started calling everyone...Sinbad, Eric Darius, David Benoit, Kenny Lattimore, Eric Marienthal, and Oleta Adams (she was the only one I didn’t know but David Britz had worked with her before). Everyone loved the idea and jumped on board right away; I was thrilled!
I finally made the official public announcement on Sirius/XM’s Watercolors during a year end special that I was guest DJ-ing. It aired on Friday, December 30, 2011 and for the following three nights, I also announced it on stage while performing at Yoshi’s in Oakland. We went on sale a month later in February of 2012 and to my astonishment, it completely sold out in one week!!
With all of that said, there was one thing that I never planned for during our first ‘getaway’ last June of 2012. It was the amazing fans that came to Napa Valley (many for the first time) with their hearts and minds open and ready to have the time of their lives. They met new friends, tried new wines and foods, told me about how this event touched their life and how special they felt to be a part of something like this. After all of the hard work that had gone into creating this event, that truly inspired me and made me want to work even harder so that we can continue to share these great experiences together for years to come.
Thanks for reading!
P. S. Special thanks to Michelle, Steve Gage, David Britz, Luke Pierce, Cecil Ramirez, Oliver Caldwell, Peter Williams, The Westin Verasa, all of the winery partners and everyone else who helped make this happen.