GOLDENDALE, Wash. — The party was well under way by 4 p.m.
Not the official hoopla, of course — that was due to begin at 5:30, when Maryhill Winery and Amphitheater’s last concert of the 2012 season would launch with singer and warm-up presenter Matt Brown before Huey Lewis and The News took the stage.
The state’s 15th largest winery, in Goldendale, Wash., has been presenting summer concerts for eight seasons, in addition to bottling 80,000 cases of 37 different wines a year. While the wines are award-winning and draw about 75,000 enthusiasts a year to the property, the concerts have established the winery as a Northwest tradition and landmark, owners Craig and Vicki Leuthold believe.
The spot is just at 145 miles from Walla Walla and about two and 1/2 hours of driving time on the Oregon side with a cross over the Columbia River at Biggs Junction.
Nestled among row upon rows of vines and into the surrounding foothills — which rise like mounds of brown sugar, topped with dollops of white wind machines — Maryhill Winery is placed like a jewel in the sagebrush. And on this night, thousands of people were streaming in by car, pickup, school and chartered buses to immerse themselves in the shine and glimmer of the setting.
Without regard to the evening’s official schedule, parking attendants Carol and Mike Solbach were already having fun. Carol, a nurse, and Mike, a contractor, live nearby in Lyle, Wash., and have been volunteering for the summer music season four years now.
It’s a great way to see top performers, Mike said, but it’s more than that for the Solbachs and about 150 other volunteers.
“You get to hang out with your buds,” explained Laura Lopez, who works as a respiratory therapist across the river in Hood River, Ore., for her day job. “We do it because it’s a good reason to get together with your friends.”
Too, when parking is complete and the show starts, they all dance, Lopez said with a laugh.
“Dance like nobody’s watching.”
The joy and dedication of the volunteers is carefully cultivated and nurtured by the Leutholds, who bought the land in 1999 and took advantage of the ground’s “natural bowl” to begin ever-evolving work on a 4,000-seat amphitheater within the first year.
With that, the couple invested in the concert business, but with a slightly different way of doing things, Vicki said.
The typical big-time concert shoppers select their acts at an annual entertainment conference show in February in Las Vegas, she explained. Once those tour schedules are decided, Maryhill looks to see who is coming through the Northwest and might be available.
“It has to economically feasible and it has to be a weekend, because we are so remote,” she said. “And it has to be the right genre.”
Then the Leutholds must act quickly to snatch up the six or nine acts that will fit those parameters. Classic rock — such as tonight’s show features — works “really, really” well with their customers, Vicki said.
Country acts don’t fill the seats, although Willie Nelson was his own category and drew the fans.
“My joke is that we catch them on the way up or the way down,” she said with a laugh.
Then, with the help of folks such as the Solbachs, the green light is on and it’s a rush to prepare.
Many of the volunteers are directly connected to the owners as family or friends of the couple or their employees. And a good number come from Maryhill’s wine club membership list, “rabid fans of this place who are thrilled to be able to do more with it,” Vicki explained. “People love to get involved with that favorite winery of theirs.”
Even the official law enforcement presence of the evening is happy to be here. By 5 p.m., Washington State Patrol Trooper Dale Ketzleff is on site with partner Marc Boardman to keep order for the vehicles that have been steaming in for more than an hour.
“There’s only one exit out of here and we have to keep State Route 14 open. But it doesn’t take long to get everyone out of here,” Ketzleff said.
Many concert-goers take advantage of the set-up the winery has with Maryhill Museum of Art, about a mile down the road. That facility offers expanded parking, and people are shuttled to the winery on Goldendale School District buses, he explained. “A lot of people prefer that, and they can bring their coolers right on the bus.”
The winery folks also do an “awesome” job of accommodating those who need extra help in reaching the concert seats, the trooper noted.
He’s watched over the years as the venue has evolved from a tent held in place by rocks to a large, substantial stage able to bear the brunt of the Columbia Gorge’s infamous wind.
The Leutholds have also used a grape by-product to keep dust down in the graveled parking lot, Ketzleff said. “That’s really been an improvement.”
As they wait for the gate to open, Lisa and Curt Piren wait in the shade of the picnic shelter set on the bocce ball court several yards away from the tasting room.
Several others have sought out the shade, as well, bringing a bottle of wine to the picnic tables to ease the wait.
The Pirens are celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary with a first trip to the area from their home in Hillsboro, Ore. They’ve always liked Huey Lewis, Lisa said, and the location offered new adventures, such as visiting the art museum.
Finding lodging, however, took some fancy phone work.
“We almost waited too long,” she said.
As the couple talked, a Portland-based tour bus the size of a duplex pulled into the parking lot, disgorging a herd of folks who headed straight for the tasting room.
In creating the music venue, Maryhill Winery has strived to present numerous seating choices and price options. On the tasting room’s expansive patio, which tops the amphitheater’s crest, those who have paid good money for the show sip complimentary wine and feast on gourmet finger foods.
The 66 director-style chairs that line the rail overlooking the outdoor bowl are prized seats, and not just for the “porcelain bathrooms up here,” joked volunteer Jim Stapleton.
He and his wife come down from Bainbridge Island for each concert gig, leaving behind his job as chief financial officer for Ozone International, LLC.
“It’s a good weekend,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for three years, every show. We get to see a lot of great shows.”
The rail seating — which showcase the winery’s stunning views of the Columbia River and Mount Hood — allows people to not feel crowded and to continue their conversations during the show, if so desired, Stapleton continued. “But if you want to see the artists perspire, you get the white seats.”
Those are right up front, flanked by a beer garden on the side and box seats built into the hill in the back.
Beyond that, the lawn’s tiered seating is well-defined, offering level ground on nearly each row.
Then, like frosting on the cake, there is table-and-chair seating alongside the premium seats, where groups gather to eat hot dogs, pulled pork sandwiches, barbecue and stir fry prepared by vendors in permanent kitchens on the hillside.
“There is no bad seat,” Vicki said, “because it’s a true amphitheater with good viewing everywhere.”
Back on the patio, a gregarious group of attendees stands out with plastic eyeglasses that flash red and blue, plus American flag lapel pins blinking furiously.
The six men and women fit right in between the National Rifle Association ball caps and the corporate polo shirts.
The demographics of each show, Stapleton pointed out, “is all artist driven.”
It’s a first visit to Maryhill Winery for Scott Tom and he’s going to enjoy the entire night, the Portland radio personality said with gusto, pouring his white wine into a plastic — and blinking — beer stein from home.
In addition to his own DJ business, Tom works for Clear Channel Media, doing just about everything.
He’s here with the competition, Bill Kistler of KPAM talk radio, he boomed.
“In radio, all of us are family ... the industry is fragmented, but we want people to know radio is still powerful. We have to stick together.”
Tom has been in radio for 37 years, and currently works the “oldies” station, but it’s his first time to see Huey Lewis, he said.
So is the near-capacity crowd. A walk to the bottom of the amphitheater seems a quarter-mile long, but the sound system makes the trip worth it. Here the vigorous breeze of the gorge is softer as it caresses an impossibly-velvet lawn.
People continued to take their seats during the warm-up act, but as intermission ended, a current of anticipation coursed through the amphitheater.
Then it began, the main reason people had come, some of them driving hundreds of miles. As colored lights swirled in the stage smoke, the band that topped Billboard charts time and time again in the 1980s showed it had lost none of the magic as Lewis and his musicians rocked it all open with “Heart of Rock and Roll.”
Couples young and old danced, clapped, whooped and hollered for the next 90 minutes or so as the band presented new songs and its classics, such as “I Want a New Drug,” “Small World,” “Doing It All For My Baby,” and “Hip to be Square.”
This concert wraps up a season that featured artists Alison Krauss, Chris Isaak and Earth, Wind and Fire. Typically, the venue attracts about 60 percent of ticket buyers from Portland and Vancouver, Wash.
“The rest is pretty evenly divided between east of the Cascades, Central Washington, Spokane, Lewiston, Pendleton, Bend, Walla Walla,” Vicki said.
Which, she doesn’t mind saying, is something she and Craig are proud of. The Leutholds left 30 years of corporate and family-businesses in Spokane and sold off investments to put all their eggs in one basket.
By living “at poverty level” and working hard, the family has been able to bring life and a living to the scrubby hills of Eastern Washington. The company’s wines now sell across the country.
For many concert fans, the annual music series becomes an annual trek, Vicki said.
“The concerts bring so much value to the winery, so much awareness,” she said. “It’s giving people a taste of who we are, introducing a ton of people to our brand.”
For more information go to www.maryhillwinery.com.