HEARD IT ON THE GRAPEVINE
Some of Australia’s best- known winemakers are ripping out vines to make room for rock fans who prefer their music in the open air. Iain Shedden reports
RICHARD Clapton doesn’t care for wine. He’s more hardcore than that, a ‘‘ shot and a beer man’’, as he puts it. Even so, the Aussie rock veteran owes something of a debt to the humble grape for broadening his fan base 35 years after he started out.
When Clapton walks on to the stage today at the Day on the Green concert at Rochford Wines in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, it will mark his 20th appearance at such events across the country in the past six years, making him the undisputed local champion of rockers in the vines.
Yet Clapton isn’t the only heritage artist enjoying the fruits of these labours, nor is he the only Clapton. His more famous namesake, Eric, is one of the many international acts, such as John Mellencamp, Elton John, Leonard Cohen and Lionel Richie, who are embracing the idea that a tour to Australia can include — or indeed consist of — shows on some of the country’s best-known wine-growing estates.
During the summer Cohen, Eric Clapton, Simply Red and Alicia Keys are the main draws at winery shows across the country. Adding local gloss to the bills are artists such as Paul Kelly, the Triffids, Kasey Chambers and Jimmy Barnes. Richard Clapton is joined today by Hoodoo Gurus, Mark Seymour, the Angels and Even.
All of these performers in the coming days, weeks or months will enjoy crowds in their thousands, audiences that, in many cases, will have come for the weekend with money in their pockets and picnic blankets and children in their four-wheel-drives. If live music is a ray of hope over the relatively gloomy global recording industry, then winery shows are an increasingly shiny beacon of success, particularly in Australia.
The model that has led the way in this growth market is A Day on the Green, devised by promoter Michael Newton seven years ago as a way to create a niche in the Australian concert circuit, one that, to his mind, was just waiting to be nurtured.
‘‘ We started the shows because we saw a gap in the way shows are presented to people over 40,’’ Newton says. ‘‘ We went for the jugular with that demographic. But we’re not just going for that crowd. We’ve had success with people such as Missy Higgins as well. And the wineries love it because the shows are introducing people to the idea of visiting wineries.’’
For our Clapton, the winery shows have provided a lucrative sideline to his bread-andbutter gigs at clubs and pubs. They also provide an ideal setting for fans who have grown up with his music since the 1970s and who are no longer inclined towards the pub-rock environment.
‘‘ Rock gigs for my generation are getting increasingly difficult,’’ the 57-year-old says. ‘‘ The atmosphere in those older venues doesn’t always suit older audiences. I do get a lot of older people who get frustrated because they can’t bring kids to the shows. The whole mood and attitude of winery shows is different. Some of my other gigs are pretty hardcore, whereas the winery gigs are a lot more laidback. It is almost tailor-made for me because the age group seems to be mainly people approaching middle age who bring their children and are turning them on to my music.’’
A Day on the Green has held almost 150 concerts since its inception, with only three called off because of the weather. The most recent was Mellencamp and Sheryl Crow’s show at Rochford Wines two weeks ago. Other Australian promoters, such as Frontier, Michael Coppel and Chugg Entertainment are all wise to the winery concept and have shows of their own in the wine regions this summer. In some cases these local rock promoters have sold part of their international artists’ tours to A Day on the Green. Newton bought Simply Red from Coppel, for example, to do wineries alongside the band’s Coppel-organised indoor concert shows.
Coppel refers to the winery circuit, albeit jokingly, as audiences of a certain demographic ‘‘ being able to enjoy getting completely legless in the open air over summer’’, but he adds, more seriously, that ‘‘ there’s a growing appetite for the winery show business model’’.
There’s no denying that an enclosed paddock where the selling of the local produce is part of the exercise can look a bit messy by dusk. I’ve witnessed a few such wine-athons at days on the vines, when the term ‘‘ last day on earth’’ better represented the mindset and intentions of the gathered multitude. In particular, one recalls a bemused Elvis Costello looking on as two welldressed, seemingly respectable middle-aged women re-enacted Kostya Tszyu’s most recent encounter in front of the stage. The moment cried out for Costello’s cover of Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down or even I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, but neither was forthcoming.
What seems clear, however, is that as long as the weather holds out and the punters turn up, everyone’s a winner down in the valleys. Mostly the concerts are free of trouble. The audience sits in a comfortable environment, perhaps staying overnight in a hotel or B & B, while the promoter, artists, sponsors and wineries make money. Indeed the estates, at least the few able to accommodate rock concerts, are prospering so much from these shows that many of them are ripping out vines to make way for more seats.
Among these are Sandalford Wines in West-