Imagine you’re kicking back in a private box seat, sipping some fine California wine and snacking on a wood-fired gourmet pizza, while watching one of your favorite performers wow a 3,000-plus crowd in a brand new outdoor amphitheater settled in an oak-dappled corner of Paso Robles. Sounds pretty sweet, right?
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MEN OF VISION: Lee A. Smith (left), owner of Prescient Entertainment, will be the exclusive talent booker for the new Vino Robles Amphitheater, and venue general manager Tim Reed will oversee construction and operation of the facility.
Now stop imagining and start thinking about busting out that checkbook and buying a PSL (Personal Seat License) for the Vina Robles Amphitheater, which plans to hold its first of many concerts this summer.
The near completion of the new venue at Vina Robles Winery & Vineyards marks the completion of a long-running dream for general manager Tim Reed, who’s been trying to get an outdoor concert venue in SLO County for 20 years.
It all started in 1993 when Reed was studying chemistry at Cuesta College and he and his friend David Pulitzer decided to run for vice president and president of the Associated Students of Cuesta College. They won in a landslide, and the first thing Reed did with his VP position was to buy a sound system for the newly built student center and hold 15 free concerts.
“That put me in contact with the administration, and that’s when I heard about the Soldier Bowl,” Reed recalled.
Cuesta, originally part of Camp San Luis, had a large outdoor amphitheater that in its heyday featured performers like Bob Hope. Unfortunately, it had fallen on hard times thanks to poor drainage, and it hadn’t been used in decades. For Reed, it looked like an opportunity for SLO County to finally get an outdoor amphitheater.
Reed worked tirelessly on the project and eventually got Bay Area company Bill Graham Presents (BGP) interested in developing the venue, but the project fell through when the Cuesta College Board of Directors refused to allow Bill Graham Presents to sell beer and wine at the potential site. When one door closes, another opens, and BGP was so impressed with Reed that they gave him a job overseeing the construction of new venues.
“I built the Fillmore, a rock ballroom in Denver, then the Sacramento Valley Amphitheater [since renamed Sleep Train], a 22,000-seat venue just north of Sacramento, and then City Lights Pavilion in Denver, a 5,000-seat amphitheater,” Reed said. “Then I became the general manager of the Shoreline Amphitheater, a 22,500-seat venue in Mountain View.”
He never lost contact with SLO County, however, and he never stopped trying to fulfill his dream of building a venue here.
“I looked at spots all over this county for 20 years,” Reed said. “I worked with the Botanical Garden on their master plan to see if a venue could be developed there.”
He’s now finally seeing his dream become a reality.
- PHOTO BY WYATT DEXTER
- TIERS! : The new venue will feature portable seating near the stage, fixed seating on the next tier, private box seats, and lawn seating in the back.
“The scaffolding on the stage can hold 240,000 pounds of weight for lighting and speakers,” Reed said, “which is the same as the Shoreline Amphitheater. That means we can pretty much accommodate any touring production out there.”
Reed also believes that as the venue develops a reputation and clientele, it may have the potential to increase its 3,300-seat capacity, which is currently limited by the available 1,100-spot parking area.
It will have an 11 p.m. curfew, and the venue designers worked closely with sound engineer David Lord to mitigate any noise issues.
“We’re right off of Highway 46, which puts out 72 decibels on its own, and there’s no residential area nearby,” Reed said, “but the way [the amphitheater] is constructed, the sound should be pretty well maintained, and we’re buying a state-of-the-art PA [public address system] that will have the ability to control the sound. What that means is we can run at a lower volume and still have high quality sound. It’s about the sound mixing and the equipment, which has come light years in the last decade.”
The venue plans to hold most of its shows beginning at 6 p.m. during Paso Robles’ warm summer nights, and most shows will end by 10:30 p.m. The first season will consist of about 15 shows, and that number should slowly increase over time.
Who’s got the big bucks?
The new venue will feature an area right in front of the stage that could serve as a dance area, standing room only, or have portable chairs. The next tier will have fixed stadium-style seating. The third tier will feature 60 private four-seat luxury boxes. The small hill behind will have grass seating.
Right now, Adam Roberts, who’s in charge of sponsorship and premium seat sales, is selling Personal Seat Licenses for the box and fixed seating.
“This is the same concept they use at sports stadiums,” Roberts said. “You’re basically buying a place in line to buy a seat when we are finally ready to sell them.”
- PHOTO BY WYATT DEXTER
- WINE COUNTRY : The venue is being built next to the Paso Robles Hospitality Center at the Vina Robles Winery & Vineyards.
You can buy a PSL for a pair of fixed seats for $200 or a private four-seat box for $400.
“It’s a one-time fee, and it allows you to re-buy the seats every season,” Roberts added. “It’s also transferable, so if you want to sell the box to a friend, you can do that. If you don’t get a PSL this year, you might never get a box.”
So far, the venue hasn’t determined a price point for the fixed and box seats. It’s contingent on what acts are booked for this season and what price the tickets are, but if you want a chance at buying seats, now’s the time to get in line. Those for whom a box seat isn’t financially feasible need not worry.
“The house will be scaled,” Reed said, explaining inexpensive grass seating, medium-priced floor seating, and the more upscale fixed and boxed seats.
“This has been a long time coming for SLO County, and our first priority is to accommodate a wide demographic,” Reed said. “The ticket price range will be set by the artist, but if you love a particular artist and want to get up close and see ’em sweat, you can buy a spot in the pit. If not, we’ll have reasonably priced lawn seating.”
Reed foresees many of the boxes going to businesses, who will use their season box seats as perks. The box seats will come with designated parking, private entry, private restrooms, and private lounge area off of the main plaza, basically a VIP zone.
Terri McKeown, who also used to work at Shoreline with Reed, is the director of food and beverages for the new amphitheater. She’ll be running the various concessions stands, the two planned wood-fired pizza ovens, and the 280-seat restaurant that will open when the concert venue does.
“The concessions will have things like hamburgers, tri-tip sandwiches, and seasoned fries, but upscale quality,” McKeown said. “We’re going to try to do everything local if we can.”
The venue will also feature a gourmet coffee stand and guest chefs and local restaurants or caterers in the concession stands, and will work to pair the foods with Vina Robles’ wines.
The venue will start with serving beer and wine, but a hard liquor license could be in the future.
And for the environmentally minded, McKeown plans to run a green operation.
“Terri was responsible for ‘greening’ the Shoreline,” Reed said.
- RENDERING COURTESY OF VINA ROBLES AMPHITHEATER
- GO BIG OR GO HOME! : The venue will accommodate 3,300 people, feature a 280-seat restaurant, and boast a 7,100-square-foot backstage area.
“It’s about environmental efficiency,” McKeown explained. “In fact, we’re working with the Paso Robles Waste Management to create a recycling program. We started the pilot recycling program at the Shoreline. We’ll also be working with local foodbanks to be sure unneeded food doesn’t go to waste. We want to generate 90 percent compostable or recyclable refuse and only 10 percent trash headed for the landfill. We’ll also take care in sourcing our produce, making sure when we have deliveries, that they’ll come on one truck instead of 10 trucks.”
Even their parking lot is low-impact. Instead of laying down asphalt, they’re creating a “parking meadow.”
The man with the plan
Reed tapped a real pro as the exclusive booking agent for the new venue. Lee A. Smith ran Bill Graham Presents for years and currently owns Prescient Entertainment, which books shows in the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, a venue of similar size to Vina Robles. He’s teamed with AEG Live, which runs the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, the Stagecoach Country Music Festival, and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival as well as books shows into a venue in San Diego and another in Seattle.
Thanks to the partnership, Lee foresees contracting bigger acts that will travel up the coast and play all four venues. Which brings up the elephant in the room. Will this new venue be too much competition for other SLO County venues and concert promoters? Both the Avila Beach Resort and Pozo Saloon can accommodate around 3,000 people. Can the county support another large-scale venue?
Bruce Howard, who used to own K-Otter (which was sold to and became K-Pig) and currently owns Otter Productions, Inc., which books shows at Avila Beach Resort, thinks Vina Robles is going to be great for SLO County.
“Absolutely I think [it’s] good for the concert scene,” Howard said. “What they’re doing is pretty cool, around a winery and all that. And Tim [Reed] and I go back around 30 years. We’ve co-promoted some shows and competed against each other too. That’s the nature of the business. Sometimes you cooperate; sometimes you compete. So will there be more competition for acts? Absolutely. But as far as the public is concerned, this is going to be great. My intention is to keep kicking up shows at Avila Beach, and people can decide if they want to see a show at the beach or go inland.”
Howard has seen a lot of changes during his concert promoting career: the Chumash Auditorium, the Performing Arts Center, the Alex Madonna Expo Center.
The market is getting more mature,” he said, “and there are a lot more choices for people. That’s good for the general public. We live in a county with 270,000 people, and I defy anyone to find a similar size county with more live music of the scale we have moving through our market. We just had Crosby, Stills, & Nash choose to record their live album at the PAC, not because they love the promoter, but because they love the PAC, so they’re willing to work with me. [The Vina Robles Amphitheater] will increase the level of talent choices and the competition, and that’s a good thing. We can work together. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the Mid-State Fair, and I try not to book things during it, but for instance last year we had the Sublime package, and I decided to do it because the fair didn’t have any music of that genre.”
As for Reed, he doesn’t think his venue will even compete with the fair: “They’re a 747 cruising at 30,000 feet, and we’re a Cessna.”
Reed also thinks the amenities for the artists will help attract quality acts.
“We’ll have a 7,100-square-foot backstage area,” Reed said, “with four dressing rooms, a full bath and shower, a full kitchen, a laundry room, a practice room, a game room, and outdoor lounge areas. It’s going to be a full resort experience for the artist.”
The backstage loading area will be able to accommodate five semi trucks or tour buses.
Further along in the plans are 18 bungalows that guests will be able to rent.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, a few of the acts Lee Smith is looking at for this season are the following: Weezer, Carly Rae Jepsen, a B-52 and Go-Gos package, Steely Dan, Chris Isaak, Yes, The Lumineers, Peter Frampton and B.B. King, Goo Goo Dolls, Steve Martin with Edie Brickell, Nora Jones, Lyle Lovett, Los Lobos with the Los Lonely Boys, Buddy Guy with George Thorogood, and A Prairie Home Companion.
The end is near …
“The rainy season certainly impacts construction,” noted Reed, who hopes to have a soft opening as early as April but knows that may be wishful thinking.
He’d like the first concert to happen by the end of June or the beginning of July at the very latest.
“What I can’t stress enough is how honored I feel to be able to bring this to the county,” Reed said. “It’s a real privilege, getting this entitlement and bringing the county up to this level. It was a long, hard process, and one that I couldn’t have done on my own. Ultimately, it was about me getting ready over the course of two decades to meet the right group of resources with the appropriate piece of land, finding people with the resources and vision to pull the trigger. The two owners of Vina Robles Winery, the main owner Hans Nef who lives in Switzerland and his long-time business partner Hans Michel who runs the winery, they had the vision to build the Paso Robles Hospitality Center in 2007. They were early actors on the scene. They saw the potential for this amphitheater.”
Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer and music columnist. You can reach him at email@example.com.
*This article was changed on Feb. 8 to correct a misspelled name and two miscreditted photos.