You think it’d be easy for somebody who grew up in the Napa Valley to find an estate vineyard in the Coombsville District; a sub-appellation where I played and hiked often as a kid and where my grandmother is buried. I know “the avenues”, as the locals call it, quite well, but as an Avalon mist descends upon an unseasonably wintry and very rainy May morning, I end up turned around on a private vineyard estate with little signage to point me in the right direction. When I finally arrive for my chat with Little Big Town, I’m winded and running about 5 minutes late. I arrive breathless at the door, only to be greeted by Jimi Westbrook who has played rhythm guitar and provided vocals for Little Big Town since their founding in 1998. Handsome, tall and genial, he extends a firm handshake and issues forth a broad smile as I cross the threshold into a private residence the band is using during their stay in the Napa Valley.
Here for “Live in the Vineyard Goes Country”, Little Big Town will be performing that evening at Napa’s Uptown Theatre. LITVGC is part of the Live in the Vineyard franchise; a music festival bar-none held twice annually across some of the Napa Valley’s most coveted venues---barrel-lined cellars at storied wineries, private rooms at feted restaurants and historic concert halls like the Uptown Theatre---where attendees are predominately record industry executives and radio programmers, there to listen to new releases by established artists, or to sample new music by up-and-comers. Everyday music fans who want to attend must enter sweepstakes held by radio stations across the country like iHeart radio and their affiliates. Tickets aren’t available for sale. What results is a visceral experience that marries music, food and wine like no other event with which I’m familiar. Save for the Uptown, many of the venues are so intimate, that you might find yourself listening to HAIM or The Revivalists in a roomful of 60 or so people; sometimes less. Other past artists include David Gray, Alanis Morrissette, Tegan & Sara, Ocean Park Standoff, Lenny Kravitz, the Jonas Brothers, Guster, Fun., Collective Soul, Rita Wilson, Adam Lambert, Atlas Genius, Jason Mraz, Macy Gray, Hanson, Melissa Ethridge, Neon Trees, Fergie, Parachute, Brad Paisley, Mike Posner, Vintage Trouble, Parachute, Julia Michaels and ZZ Ward, to name just a few.
Karen Fairchild, Westbrook’s wife of 13 years, who’s known for her exceptional and often poignant songwriting and the rich, warm tone of her voice, meets me in the foyer, bottle of wine in hand and offers to pour me a glass. It’s a 2016 Merlot from their Walla Walla, Washington-based winery, 4 Cellars. Her beauty recalls matinee idols from the 30’s and 40’s, whose symmetrical, delicate features and glamorous baring often belied a steely sense of self just below the surface. She’s dressed in a stunning red jumper that skirts coral hues. I maybe swoon a little on the inside.
The equally beguiling and striking Kimberly Schlapman, whose intuitive harmonies and pure tone add a rich emotional texture to their sound, offers a warm, kind welcome, as does Phillip Sweet, whose baring is so open and unguarded that I can’t help but break out into an unguarded smile myself when he extends a hand. It appears I’ve arrived just as Sweet and Westbrook are discussing their late-night jaunt into retro-television the previous night. “We were watching “Alice”, Sweet says. I have to search my mind for a moment; I ask if they’re talking about the comedy starring Linda Lavin who portrayed a waitress working at a diner called Mel’s. ‘Is that the kiss my grits one?’ I ask, recalling the show’s best known line often voiced by a fiery redheaded waitress named Flo. “That’s the one! Yes!” says Westbrook, laughing. The two men chuckle as they recall staying up late, drinking wine, and reveling in the beloved, blast-from-the-past series.
Little Big Town’s current hit, “The Daughters”, which I’ve been listening to on loop in my car during my long trek to Napa, is one of the reasons I’m compelled to sit down with the talented quartet, the other being their wines, which include a new, modern line of canned wines, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Penned by Fairchild, Ashley Ray and Sean Mcconnell, “The Daughters” seems destined for our times; one of those rare songs that rides a specific cultural zeitgeist at just the right moment:
“We’d never written together, but Ashley kept telling me, it’s going to be magic, it’s going to be magic if we just get together, you, me and Sean,” says Fairchild. “So I said let’s do it. We went up to Sean’s studio and we were talking about books we love and also, the impact of the craziness of the world we’re living in right now. It’s just so unfortunately divisive, and yet there are those of us who are want that to end; who are trying to raise our children with less divisiveness and focusing on things that are more important, like faith and family. Ashley asked us if we’d ever read “Girl, Wash Your Face”. I hadn’t read it, and I don’t know where it came from, but I just sang, “Girl wash your face before you come to the table…” It just came to me.” Fairchild effortlessly sings the line and her voice warms the living room where we’re seated.
“You wait for those moments,” she continues. “Bruce Springsteen calls it ‘being awake to the moment’. I don’t know if I’d ever experienced something like that until that moment, and I’m definitely not on Bruce’s level, but I felt that freedom in that moment. We just kept going, and we were all riffing. At one point I just said, “I’m just looking for a God for the daughters”. For me, growing up in the church and growing up as a woman of faith and with that foundation, I also know that some of those traditions can place unfortunate expectations on girls, on women. That’s why it so easily fell off of our tongues. And, Sean, as a father of a daughter with special needs…for him it’s easy to access those types of thoughts. When I came to play it for the band, they felt the same way about it. Whatever lifestyle you’re living, or walk of life you’ve chosen, I think you can understand the sentiment of that song. I don’t know if the song is a gift for anyone else, but it’s a gift for me.”
Westbrook adds that when they first played it for their musicians, “they’re daddies and their immediate response was, I can’t wait to play this for my wife and my daughters. That’s what you want from a song.”
This year, the band celebrates their 21st anniversary together. When I ask them what surprises them most about the narrative arc of their story together as Little Big Town, Schlapman says, “It doesn’t surprise me that we’re still together, but when I look back as that young girl 21 years ago, I don’t think any of us were thinking…what are we going to be doing in 21 years? We were maybe thinking 5 years down the road, but 21 years later, it’s been remarkable. And the fact that it’s still the original four of us who sat together in the living room and played when nobody had heard a note of our music together or even cared… And you said “arc” and that’s a great word for the journey we’ve been on because our arc has been a little wavy. Lots of ups and lots of downs. It was the hardship that made us strong and gave us longevity. We’re still grounded. We can easily remember the days when we could hardly afford the drive-thru at McDonalds. We can still feel that.” Sweet adds, “Year two, we were just hoping we could make it to the next year. Hoping we could afford to pay for gas to play another show. I don’t think we’ve ever lost that appreciation for being able to keep going. Even today, we’re able to laugh and enjoy our moments together because we can appreciate what we have. We’ve been able to enjoy the pleasures of life.” “We like to celebrate moments,” Fairchild adds. “The smallest, the biggest and we like to do that around food and beautiful wine. We love celebrating together and we do it all the time. Just today, we had about 10 minutes to spare, so we thought, what vineyard can we stop and taste at? What can we enjoy together for these 10 minutes? And, we laughed our asses off the whole way home. We had the best wine at this little vineyard,” says Fairchild.
In addition to celebrating all their little and big victories together, they equally enjoy watching others succeed, Fairchild says. “We like to celebrate other people. We’re very close to other artists. We just saw Brothers Osborne today at sound check and we’re all going to party tonight together. They opened for us and we get to watch them blossom, watch them go through the struggle of not having any money, and then also, watch them buy their mother a house. There’s so much joy in watching their journey.”
Early on, Westbrook believed the band would achieve success. “I’m not really surprised because I think we felt like something special was going to happen,” he says. “That’s what kept us going. We’re very grateful but we also felt like we had something to share and I feel like we were always going to see that through…to wherever that took us. That’s where we are now. We’re still open. And I love that about where we are at this point in our journey. I still wake up and I love the thought of ‘maybe today I’ll write a song’. Fairchild chimes in, “Maybe we’ll do something we’ve never done before. The discoveries together is what keeps us going. If you’re an artist and you’re ever not feeling that, then that’s maybe that’s the time you stop. For us, we just keep going.”
Outside, a light rain falls against the windows on each side of a large fire place that holds a gentle fire. Someone comes in and places a generous platter of bread, cheese and charcuterie before us. Bottles of wine are opened as are cheerfully decorated cans of wine called Day Drinking, the band’s newest wine project and aptly named after their hit, Day Drinking, a Gold-certified Top 5 hit on country radio.
“We go some incredible news today” Schlapman says. “Our project is a baby and it’s beginning to grow. And, today, six hundred and forty five public stores just placed their first order of Day Drinking. That’s a big deal! ” There are woo-hoos around the table as she tells me this. Fairchild chimes in, “It’s like putting a song out there. And you think of the ways you can share a song so more people can hear it. And that’s how it is with our cans. We just want to see people enjoying these cans, enjoying life, celebrating moments.”
The band’s winemaker, Hal Landvoigt, an affable, enthusiastic fellow, has an easy camaraderie with Little Big Town. He’s refreshingly emotional about his job making wines for 4 Cellars and now Day Drinking. “When you meet these people, you want every conversation with them to continue. I could stay up all night and talk with them. That doesn’t happen often in work situations. It’s rare to connect on a personal, music, and wine level with people. And I’ve been as warmly embraced by them as I wanted to embrace them back…that made me want to work twice as hard.” Landvoigt, whose children are in the same age range as some of the band’s children, joined Little Big Town in the vineyard shortly after they started to work together to hang placards, assigning each child’s name to a vineyard row. “Music is not something that touches you only in your ears. It touches you in your heart, in your eyes. When you listen to it, it can make you cry. It can make you feel things. Remember things. Wine does that same thing for me. I can smell a wine and be reminded of a day twenty years ago I spent with my grandfather, or meals that I had when I was very young that were powerful moments.”
The 4 Cellars Harmony red blend is a savory, beautiful stand-out. Combining Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Mourvedre, this blend is delineated and compelling, with an underlying tension in the structurally appealing mouthfeel. Hailing from the Columbia Valley, the vineyard sources for this wine include the Alder Ridge Vineyard, Willow Crest, Mirage Canyon Vineyard Ranch, and the Browne Family Estate Vineyard. The entire line-up of wines is elegantly understated and over-performs at fair price points. Line-priced at $ 25.00 a bottle, the 4 Cellars brand further illustrates that some of the best deals in wines are coming out of Washington State these days. The entire portfolio includes a Blanc de Noirs and a Demi-Sec, Chardonnay, Grenache Rose, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah and a Red Mountain-based Cabernet Sauvignon that has fared very well with wine critics.
Landvoigt next brings out the brightly colored Day Drinking cans; visually pleasing 375 ml cans (two cans equals a 750 ml bottle) that are equally bright, refreshing and delightful to imbibe. My favorite Day Drinking wine is Southern Peach; a nod to real summer peaches that is slightly tart like the red pith around the pit, but with the fruit sweetness of a ripe Peach. There’s nothing cloying about this wine. It’s light, delicate and fun to drink. I had to keep reminding myself that one can is a half-bottle of wine. It’s easy to over-imbibe on a wine that is so thirst quenching, so some self-awareness is required to truly enjoy the world of canned wines.
In addition to Southern Peach, there’s also a Rosé Bubbles and Watermelon Rosé. The Rosé Bubbles is another keeper; linear, beautifully austere in texture, but still offering ample fruit and a surprisingly pleasant and long finish. Attractive enough to set down on a table for indoor dining, the cans are perhaps best enjoyed at the beach, on a picnic, aboard a pontoon on a lake or on one’s back porch after a long work week. My wife and I enjoyed our cans on our deck, as we watched our dogs play in the yard. Cold and crisp, they’re a nice way to kick off a weekend, or to chill out a little on a hectic hump day.
While Fairchild describes 4 Cellars brand as “our sophisticated winery”, the Day Drinking line of canned wines is all about enjoying a fun moment with a casual wine. “We didn’t want to be a band that threw our name in to some kind of endorsement deal,” Fairchild says. “If we do it, we do it right. Let’s make good product and just like the music, if you write a good song, you reap the benefits. If you make a good wine, you reap the benefits.” She adds, “music and wine speak the same language.”
I’m particularly intrigued by the Day Drinking line, not only because of its fresh and playful aura, but also because it comes in cans; cheaper to recycle than glass, lighter to ship than heavy glass bottles, easier to store than bottles and practical to hold and consume. Just a few years ago, it seemed as though cans, like boxed wines, would be forever inferior modes of selling and storing wines. But, unlike boxed wines, cans have continued to improve drastically. Brands like Sans Wine Co, Ramona and now Day Drinking, deliver good-quality, delicious wines in easy-to-open and use containers that ultimately leave a smaller impact on the environment than glass bottles. That alone makes me want to Day Drink more often.