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Wine and rock: A perfect pairing

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The Gin Blossoms

I would consider myself more of a music lover than a wine lover, but Rock ‘n Roll Wine is against choosing one passion over another. It’s not rock or wine; it’s both! This summer, the Las Vegas-based wine events company has held several parties where guests sampled delicious wines paired not with Gruyere or pate, but with music, and this weekend marks Rock ‘n Roll Wine’s blow out bash, the 3rd Annual Wine Amplified Festival at The Beach at Mandalay Bay.

Rock ‘n Roll Wine founders Sonny Barton and Chris Hammond have pulled out all the stops for the season-ending party featuring 120 wines from 50 wineries plus a packed ticket of musicians to accompany the tasting. Headlining the event are the Gin Blossoms, with Californians Sherwood and local groups A Penny for Jane , Jeremy Cornwell and The Bends opening. The Gin Blossoms' guitarist, Scott Johnson, took some time to speak with us about his experiences with the band and his expectations for this weekend’s show.

What was it like skyrocketing to fame after the hit “Hey Jealousy?”

Scott Johnson: It was a dream come true. We had been at it for a while touring and we weren’t getting a whole lot of response. Back home we were like local rock stars, and you go on the road and nobody knows who you are. When we started, we did a college tour where we would sometimes play in cafeterias on these campuses. By the end of that tour, “Hey Jealousy” started spreading and there were lines out the door of people who were coming to see us and suddenly the places were too small where just a few months before, we were lucky if 50 people showed up.

What brought about the band’s breakup in 1997? All I’ve seen written about it was that each member decided to go his separate way. It couldn’t have been that easy?

Speaking of miserable… I know a lot of people were like, “Oh come on, you’re a rock band, how hard can it be?” But you’re away from home and I had two daughters, so it’s hard. Basically what happened was Robin [Wilson, lead singer] just came to us and said he was done. We all went our separate ways then five years later I get a call from Robin asking if I would play guitar with him and Bill Leon, the Gin Blossoms’ bassist. It was kind of a slow process, it wasn’t like the Blues Brothers movie like, “Hey, we’re getting the band back together!” It took a while.

What caused the delay on the next studio album after your reunion? After your reunion in 2002, you didn’t put out the album until 2006.

Well, you know our label was gone. We were with a label that got swallowed up in a deal. Now some bands don’t even use labels anymore, but we felt that we had had a great experience being with a label, so that’s something we wanted to get back to. It took a long time to get that going then, of course, we had to write an album that we were proud of. And also being a band, it’s not like Bruce Springsteen walks in and tells the E Street Band, “Here’s the songs I wrote for our next record; here’s the tempo, these are the keys I like.” For us, it’s different. We try a lot of different styles and we spend a lot of time experimenting.

Do fans at your shows ever seem hesitant to hear your new material because your radio hits from the ‘90s are still so popular?

No, I don’t think so. We try not to shove new material down our fans’ throats. It’s just not fair to them, so generally we try to mix it between the hits and some of the choice older songs that maybe weren’t hits but people seem to still kind of recognize and then a handful of new material.

How did you get involved with the Rock ‘n Roll Wine Amplified Festival?

I’m a huge wine fan, so I’m really excited. We are the perfect band for a wine festival [laughs]. I hear there are going to be 120 different types of wine there. That just sounds so dangerous. I’ve gone to wine tastings before and they may have wines maybe in the teens, but this is intense.

What are you most looking forward to about headlining at this year’s festival?

Drinking a bunch of wine! I might have to refrain until we’re done. I can’t get smashed ‘til we’re done playing. A wine tasting, man, that’s right up my alley!

Rock 'n Roll Wine founders, Chris Hammond and Sonny Barton.

Sonny Barton and Chris Hammond, founders of Rock ‘n Roll Wine, also weighed in on Wine Amplified. Here is what they had to say about their company and this year’s festival:

How did you develop a love of wine? Was it something your family was involved in?

Chris Hammond: Actually I got it from my father. Probably about seven or eight years ago we were having dinner and he pulled out the wine list and knew a lot more about some obscure wine names and winery regions, and I was intrigued by it. Obviously I always liked tasting wine, but then I started learning about the subtle nuances and differences between varietals and regions.

Sonny Barton: Ironically, I grew up in the wine country of New York. I was never into wine, and when I got older and met Chris I was actually intimidated by wine since I was a beer drinker. Through our friendship and going to wine tastings, I started to develop an appreciation for wine.

Chris, where did you receive your training to become a sommelier?

CH: It entailed a test basically. You study for about six months and then you take a test. They do them a couple of times a year here in Las Vegas. It’s the Court of Master Sommeliers. I took mine at the Bellagio in 2005.

What’s the process like?

CH: There are a couple of different levels. I’m just the entry level, then there’s an advanced level and an elite master level. The reason I wanted to get it is because our concept was so unique and unorthodox in taking rock ‘n roll music and putting together these high energy wine tastings. I didn’t want anyone to ever question our authenticity or the quality of the product we were delivering.

SB: We want them to know we still respect the integrity of the wine itself.

Do you have a favorite wine from your collection?

SB: We have two wines and we’re working on a third one. We have had two vintages of our white wine, our Reggae Rhapsody. I don’t know if I have a favorite; I like them all.

CH: Reggae Rhapsody is my favorite. Our 2006 Reggae Rhsapsody, it’s a California white blend of five white grapes.

There will be more than 120 unique wines from over 50 wineries; is this your largest event yet?

SH: Yes, absolutely. It’s grown every year. Last year we unfortunately had a tumultuous thunderstorm the night before, and it scared a lot of people off, but we still had a larger crowd than the year before.

How did you choose the local bands to support the headliner for the festival?

CH: As far as the local opening acts, Sonny and I pick them. We’ve got local acts that play at our events, and we had a lot of people who requested to be on the opening bill.

What are you most looking forward to about this year’s festival?

SB: That’s a good question. You want people to walk away thinking this is the best event they’ve been to all year. And that’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to the smiles as people are walking out or when they’re at the after party thinking that they had a great time.

CH: And seeing new people who have experienced Rock ‘n Roll Wine for the first time thinking that it’s a really cool concept.

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