Wente concerts to feature Diana Ross, Jackson Browne
By Lou Fancher
Superstar Diana Ross prefers Skippy peanut butter. Or at least someone thinks she does, according to Robert Gundrey, talent scout for the concerts at Wente Vineyards.
"Let's see, it says a deli tray, cranberry juice, organic apples and carrots for juicing, Häagen-Dazs butter pecan ice cream and, yup, a small jar of Skippy," he says, reading from the artist agreement sent by Ross' agent. Like most performing arts presenters, Wente signs customized agreements that include "dressing room requests" for each act booked for the outdoor concert and dinning venue.
This year's season starts June 28, with Chicago and special guest Rita Wilson. Returning bands like Chicago are other staples: Huey Lewis & The News (Aug. 10) are making their sixth appearance, Gundrey estimates. "His manager is a guy from England who I've not talked to in three years. If you'd heard us on the phone this year, you'd think we've known each other forever because Huey's been here so many times. Huey's so comfortable here, he bums around with shorts on, hits a few golf balls, then gets onstage and puts on a two-hour show and is incredible. I love that."
Like the 1,800 ticket holders at the concerts -- shows often sell out -- Gundrey is addicted to up-close interactions with established and up-and-coming entertainers. "Over 15 years, getting to meet Ringo Starr, James Taylor, others: it's such a great opportunity. Even though it's crazy and we work hard, I can't imagine retiring. Everywhere I go, people want to talk to me about the concerts. I never lack for conversation."
But he does know when to step back and allow an artist some privacy. "Diana Ross, she's a pro. She wants to be left alone, so that's what we do."
The only time he puts his foot down is when a request comes in for wine other than Wente wine. "I cross it out. They get our wines and they never complain."
Most often, artists eat food prepared by the catering department -- which is a good thing, because unlike Gundrey, Executive Chef Mike Ward's primary concern for the main restaurant isn't the talents' gustatory preferences. Other than avoiding foie gras if an artist is strongly opposed to the eating of goose liver or not serving salmon at a salmon-activist's show, Ward says guests' preferences influence his selections more than that of the entertainers. "I look into the artists' history, but it's the people who show up for the party that count. Mostly, it's all about the guests."
Of course, there's more artistry to Ward's kitchen than his comments imply. The longtime Bay Area resident knows that Boz Scaggs (July 28), Lynyrd Skynyrd (Aug. 16), Melissa Etheridge (Sept. 1) and other big stars are coming, but sounds most excited when describing the menus. "A killer smoked pork with local farro, duck with fresh cherries, beef tartare -- the meat comes from our own cattle farm. We'll have our garden grown beets, Northern California goat cheese ... we have a vision board where I write everything down."
While Ward develops his "vision," Gundrey realizes his dreams. "I've been trying to book Jackson Browne for 15 years. We were always passed over, it just never worked. This year, I started three months earlier than I usually do. I was competing with San Jose."
Browne is booked for an August appearance in the South Bay, but finally, on his tenth attempt, Gundrey snared the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (Sept. 29). "There's no rhyme or reason; guess I was just persistent enough."
Increasingly, his pursuit of artists is skewed to attract a younger audience. "Our main demographic are people who like '80s rock and roll, but we need to groom the younger audience for the future." Gundrey has taken to trolling Yelp. "I found comments from moms about taking their teenage daughters and a gang of their friends to shows."
Multiplatinum recording artists Andy Grammer and Gavin DeGraw (Sept. 12) and "American Idol" winner Phillip Phillips (July 19) are selling well with the under-30 crowd. "Phillips is almost sold out, that's why I booked him."
Perhaps the largest draw to the concerts, for people who can afford the premium price, are nine rows of seats just 4 feet from the footlights. "They're the most expensive tickets," says Gundrey "but getting close, being right in an artist's face -- people love that." Perhaps we all love proximity--almost as much as Gundrey loves making sure there's peanut butter in the dressing room when Ross shows up to sing "Stop! In the Name of Love" on July 7.