Halfway down a cement cave burrowed into the side of the Huichica Range on the Gundlach-Bundschu Estate, the realization sinks in that the by-the-bottle consumption going down all along the hillside cannot dent the surplus of wood barrels stacked two high for hundreds of feet. Gundlach-Bundschu is not taking a hit, but surviving in a cutthroat valley of competition; adjacent the en vogue pin drop of Sonoma and regional neighbors to Napa, a county that draws pilgrimages from worldwide worshipers of the grape. Sonoma as the stepchild must get creative and thus, Huichica Festival emerged.
Perhaps while checking tour date listings this spring, you wondered why Real Estate or Foxygen added yet another California date to what often adds up to six stops within the West Coast dominant. “What and where is Sonoma?” you asked. Why are these indie darlings playing Great American Music Hall one night and a barn in the northern hills the next?
Pulling up to the estate those answers are revealed in subtle flare like the rusted-over truck parked in a flower bed with a quote from Charles Bukowski painted along its backside. Gundlach-Bundschu is modernizing its brand without harming the legacy of the bottle. The barn that once housed livestock is now a venue, the high grass on the hillside mowed clean for amphitheater seating, and around the bend of the levy is a campground overlooking the vineyard. Huichica Festival is the antithesis of a region where castles, haciendas, and missions celebrate a heritage both imagined and real.
The 2015 installment, which took place this past weekend, was its best to date, as the fest partnered with (((Folkyeah!))) to veer towards the psychedelia of San Francisco and stretches outward for national acts of a similar ilk. Atlas Sound did drop out last minute, but Allah-Las thankfully headlined both evenings to unwavering approval, Amen Dunes enraptured as he’s known to do, and Saturday was ever-lively in the barn from the energy of The Fresh & Onlys and Shannon & The Clams. A distinct family friendliness was at play. Friday night Sonny Smith of Sonny & The Sunsets paused his set to answer the question of his son (later that night my girlfriend and I camped alongside Sonny & family), while The Fresh & Only rugrats posed for pictures and were carried around by indie poppas. Strollers endured the dirt path and hands were filled with child in one arm, vintage Cuvée bottle in the other.
Huichica Festival is where you find out which is your dominant wine hand, dominant being the one that best achieves that pre-sniff swirl. For instance I’ve been a righty all my life, can’t even switch hit, but discovered after enough tastes that I could achieve a more fluid swirl lefty. Where many festivals offer plastic Miller Lite bottles, so that a beverage never becomes a weapon, Huichica patrons maintain an even-headed wine drunk, rarely tipping into the burgundy darkness of dispirited behavior. Sure, it got weird during Pure Bathing Culture’s set when a young girl tiger crawled on the front stage hay barrier, tumbled off, and flashed her bloomers, but it walked that line of “good fun” without venturing into viewing Huichica as another hornets nest for the belligerent undesirables engaging in lawless joy at the expense of good people looking for a good time.
A photo posted by Johanna St.Clair (@little_sketchy) on
It was not until 1:30 a.m. on a walking back to camp, two bottles in hand, arm and arm with my lady, outlining the levy above the vineyard, that I needed an answer as to how Huichica Festival maintained its paradisaical m.o. beyond the allure of the countryside. A fellow camper approached from behind, soothing the awkwardness of being two paces behind with a friendly greeting from the darkness. “Fun night?” he asks and we concur, exchanging pleasantries. And like a soothsaying owl, he delivers the wisdom I could not place all weekend: “Festivals aren’t so bad when there’s no bros around.”
It was so obvious and yet, with those words spoken somewhere in a nearby city, perhaps Vacaville (likely Vacaville), a bro paused mid-Fireball shot at Buffalo Wild Wings sensing an imbalance in the universe. And so, from that moment onward Huichica Festival is on the clock, or rather hour glass. The sands are draining and with the final grain will come the year of Huichica’s ruin. Until that day, it remains a haven on the range, rowdy enough to bring your 20-something friends one year, and camp out with the whole family years later.