It all started in fall ’03 as a way to help Chris Hammond study: Fresh off the tech bubble bursting, the former software marketing exec was working to become a sommelier in hopes of opening a wine bar with his friend Sonny Barton. To help Hammond learn, Barton invited a bunch of people over to Hammond’s place to drink and discuss wine. Despite (or because of) the bouts of alcohol-soaked studying, Hammond passed his tests in ’04.
To add flavor to this regular event, the then-aspiring somm would also play iPod DJ, and he tailored the playlists to the varietals that were being served. Instead of pairing wines with cheese, he matched them to music. “Aside from wine, music is a passion is mine,” Hammond says. “I’d just blare the music, [and] there was this energy that was created.”
Hammond became a somm, but the event lived on. After almost two years in the Arts Factory downtown (where they took the name Rock ‘n Roll Wine), the gatherings gained wider attention. “The Bellagio called us and wanted us to have events over there,” Hammond says. Events at Mandalay Bay, Green Valley Ranch, the Hard Rock Hotel and M Resort soon followed—as did bands such as the Gin Blossoms, The Script, Dashboard Confessional, Jet and Pat Monahan of Train. “We’ve also brought in some really great indie acts, like As Tall As Lions and The Crash Kings,” Hammond adds.
The duo started the Wine Amplified festival in 2006 with the band Everclear, and it returns Sept. 25, this time with 150 wines, 50 wineries and two stages. Third Eye Blind headlines, and Locksley, Jarrod Gorbel, the Makepeace Brothers and Robert Oleysyck also perform. The night before, they throw another massive bash at Mandalay Bay: Bubbles & Chocolate overtakes Moorea Beach Club on Sept. 24, featuring music from UB40, Champagne and sparkling wines from Moët & Chandon, and desserts from acclaimed pastry chefs.
It’s hard to know what is more important at the events, the wine or the entertainment. But it turns out that choosing the music requires just as much thought as choosing the wines.
“The key to the music is, we want somebody who is energetic and sounds good, but it isn’t too hard, to the point that it might turn some off,” Hammond says. “There’s some bands that I like—there’s a band called Against Me—that I couldn’t bring into one of my events, … and on the other side, there are some coffeehouse bands that are too mellow.”
The two don’t always see eye-to-eye, musically speaking. “Chris and my musical styles vary tremendously,” Barton says. “I’m one of those people who listens to everything, and Chris is one of those people who says he listens to everything, but he listens to alternative music.”
The company aims to attract a wide variety of people to its events, which are quite varied themselves. Rock ’n Roll Wine hosts a weekly open bar on Thursdays at Lavo nightclub at the Palazzo. Contrast that with the annual pool party, which features local reggae acts. In addition to the hectic events schedule, Hammond and Barton are now in the wine business themselves: They lease space at Inspiration Vineyards in Sonoma, Calif., and produce two blends, labeled The Grotto (red) and Reggae Rhapsody (white).
While the wine bar still hasn’t happened, it’s not because either partner has been sitting on his laurels. They say the project is still on the horizon—but until then, they’re keeping music and wine lovers busy.