On the night in October that a wall of flames approached Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, Jeff Bundschu, the scion of the oldest vineyard on the West Coast, was left with a Sophie’s Choice type of decision.
As part of his discussions with the local fire commander on triage plans for the property, he had to list his three top priorities for protection. Heading the list was the vineyard (predictably) followed by an old stone home that had been in the family for generations. Behind those two was the winery’s barn, a glorious old structure that sat perilously close to the looming fires.
While the barn wasn’t an essential function of the winery, Bundschu had helped transform it into one of the Bay Area’s most inimitable and lively music venues in the Bay Area, and he could see his efforts literally about to perish before his eyes.
“I couldn’t sleep at all, so I got up in the middle of night,” said Bundschu. “I begged the firefighters on scene, ‘Please save that fucking barn.’ ”
The barn was spared — and the rest of the winery miraculously escape unscathed from the devastating North Bay Fires—and now the rustic music hall will serve as a centerpiece for the ninth annual Huichica Music Festival, taking place this Friday and Saturday at Gundlach Bundschu.
Huichica — named after a band of the indigenous Pomo tribe, as well as a type of soil in the area — is a distinctly unique musical festival in a time and region glutted with multi-day fests. The pristine setting in Sonoma County, the intimate size of the festival (1,200 attendees) and the access to world-class wines helps this event stand out, but what makes Huichica truly shine is its specially-curated lineup.
“This festival is great because there isn’t some massive headliner, and a bunch of other bands that might be ignored,” says Britt Govea of Folk Yeah, a local booking outfit that partners with the winery to stage Huichica. “We really have such a solid lineup from the top to the bottom — there is something for everyone here, and there are not the same names you see pop up at every other festival. Plus, you don’t spend one-fifth of your time waiting in line to get a drink or go to the bathroom.”
Legendary proto-punker and San Francisco native Jonathan Richman is the closest thing to a headliner for the two-day festival, but he is far from the lone highlight. Govea and Bundschu amassed a collection of artists old and new, and familiar and foreign to this year’s slate, with Folk Yeah mainstays such as King Tuff, the Fresh and Onlys, and Hand Habits sharing the bill alongside newcomers such as Iceage, a Danish band notorious for their incendiary shows.
“When Iceage comes on the stage, it will be time to switch from white wine to red,” says Govea.
Other highlights of the bill include local troubadour Sonny Smith, psych-rockers Wooden Shjips, singer-songwriter Greta Morgan, aka Springtime Carnivore, and Vetiver, another hometown group that will be playing their classic 2008 album, “Things of the Past,” on Friday night.
Bundschu, a former musician, met Eric Johnson — now of the Fruit Bats and formerly of The Shins — while gigging down in Los Angeles, and the two conceived of the event as an antidote to other music festival that they felt were “run by complete jerks.”
“We wanted to provide an alternative to these huge, overwhelming events,” says Bundschu, who jokingly touts the festival as the “hardest-to-pronounce event in the country.” “The goal was to make something small and intimate.”
The Fruit Bats’ performances have become must-see staples at the festival, and this year the group will be joined by an array of special guests for their annual “Huichica Jam.” That will be just one of the anticipated features of the two-day festival, which has earned a reputation for showcasing unexpected visits from famed local musicians. In the past, legendary Bay Area artists such as Bob Weir and Jello Biafra have dropped in on the festival for impromptu sessions — confirming the high esteem awarded to this “small, intimate” gathering.
The festival always has a laidback, anything-goes vibe to it, but this year the feel-good emotions and sense of togetherness should be heightened, given the tumultuous past nine months.
“I think we are finally returning to a sense of normalcy following the fires,” says Bundschu. “But having everyone back here for Huichica will definitely be an important step in the recovery and healing process. This year is going to be special, for sure.”
Huichica Music Festival, Friday, June 8, 2–11 p.m., and Saturday, June 9, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m., at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery, 2000 Denmark St., Sonoma. $41–$121; sonoma.huichica.com