B.B. King commands the stage at Rhythm, Wine & Brews Festival at Empire Polo Club, Indio, Calif. (VT Photo)

REPORTING FROM INDIO, CALIF. — Inspired by the successful events held on his Empire Polo Club property in Indio, Calif., Alexander Haagen IV decided it was time he try utilizing the space for his own festival-type events. It began with the creation of Empire Music Ventures in late 2011, followed by the first Empire Polo & Wine Festival, Jan. 29, 2012.

It started as a small gathering for the massive property, with just 12 wineries and no real stage. This year, attendance more than tripled, buoyed by the participation of 27 wineries and 18 breweries, some with multiple brews. A musical lineup with four bands, capped off by blues legend B.B. King, didn’t hurt, either.

“This is our second Rhythm, Wine & Brews Fest, but it’s really our first production,” said Haagen. “By doing a small wine tasting last year, it just brought the idea that we have this area and this venue. Why not try to produce something?”

Haagen credits Goldenvoice President Paul Tollet with teaching him the finer points of festival planning just by putting out a great product. Goldenvoice rents Empire Polo Fields for megafestivals Stagecoach and Coachella, which expanded from one weekend to six days last year.

“I’ve learned a lot from watching how the festivals and shows here have been put on for 20 years, so I don’t have a lot of the learning curves that somebody new would have,” said Haagen.

Two of the main things Haagen said he has learned are the importance of branding and signage.

“We went a bit overboard really trying to make the festival comfortable, branding it and making it so people knew where everything was,” he added. “If you’re comfortable, you want to relax, hang out and come back.”

Wineries and breweries set up in tents to present their product to the public. (VT Photo)

Being an avid festival goer, even on other properties, also gave Haagen a unique viewpoint.

“I’ve been to a bunch of different wine festivals and am their biggest critic because I always look and think, ‘if this was at my place, I would do it like this,’” he said. “So this gave me the opportunity to really do it like this and see what happens.”

He also wanted the festival to become more interactive. To achieve that, RWBfest launched a mobile app, developed by F2M2, that lets guests learn more about the wines and beers available, including an option to scan the label for more information and the option to share on social sites. Guests were able to rate the wine or beer and the app was updated in real time to reflect the most popular drinks.

“We wanted to be here to put our product out in front of people who obviously like wine,” said Tobie Willis of Bel Vino. “It’s complimentary for us to be here. They only ask a select few of the wineries if they want to participate and come pour product.”

At the festival’s end, Wiens Family Cellars’ Artist Series served as the most popular wine, and Stone IPA, from Stone Brewing Company, was the top beer. Winners were given custom guitars.

Each attendee received a tasting glass with the price of their ticket. (Photo by VT Photo)

Haagen estimated that last year’s event brought about 1,000 people to the site. This year, the festival drew somewhere from 3,000-4,000 attendees.

“We’re expecting quite a bit of walk-up business,” Haagen said at the start of the event.

“We’ve been everywhere — on the radio, some television, some social networking and trying to get in touch with homeowners associations,” added Haagen. “We’ve done local promotion because, with the demographic we’re going for including retirees, they might not be so inter-webs friendly.”

Not only did the music selection help account for the demographic, but also the ticket price. There were two options for tickets, a $75 admission that included seven tastings, free parking, and a souvenir tasting glass; or a $175 admission featuring reserved VIP seating with a custom logo chair to take home, VIP entrance, and a free RWB poster, as well as including parking, seven tastings and a glass.

For cuisine options, two food trucks and a hot dog cart were on-site.

Last year, the entertainment portion of the evening consisted of a 16-by-16-foot platform on a two-foot riser. This year, there were two large stages.

The ‘side stage’ featured opener Alex A and the Fermented, followed by Penny Unniversity, a local band that was the only one that played last year.

The main stage at RWBF. (VT Photo)

Guitarist Michael Anthony Gagliardi said from the stage, “we were here last year and had a really good time, but this year looks even better.” He added that the band’s name comes from the term for coffee houses in 18th century London.

Paul Thorn opened for B.B. King.

Though Haagen said he loves all types of music, when it comes to jazz, he knew who to choose as a performer.

“There’s only one B.B. King and I’ve never seen him live,” he said. “I thought there’d be no better place than here to see him live for the first time.”

Haagen also took the opportunity to do some good, donating some of the proceeds from the festival to the Casey Lee Ball Foundation benefitting pediatric kidney research.

He said that RWBfest is the first of more events for Empire Music Ventures, but that the function would have to be the right fit for the space and nothing additional has been officially planned.

Don’t call Rhythm, Wine & Brews festival a rehearsal for the megafestivals to come — Empire Music Ventures remains separate from Tollet’s spring music concerts.

“We’re basically the landlords when it comes to Stagecoach and Coachella,” said Haagen, who continued to emphasize the influence of Goldenvoice’s Paul Tollet.

“I’ve tried to emulate how he has done things, as far as keeping the space clean and organized,” Haagen said. “That’s really why Coachella is the best, because his foresight and vision make it what it is. Paul doesn’t compromise on the vision he sees. I’ve known him for a long time and have tried to take a few plays out of his playbook.”

Coachella will be held at Empire Polo Club April 12-14 and April 19-21, with Stagecoach to follow the next weekend, April 26-28.

Interviewed for this story: Michael Anthony Gagliardi, (760) 812-0780; Alexander Haagen IV, (760) 342-2762; Tobie Willis, (951) 676-6414