Little Big Town Head from Stage and Studio to the Vineyard
Wine Enthusiast, Dec 21, 2017
A new riff on group collaboration, country band Little Big Town stopped by Walla Walla, Washington, and ended up creating a signature wine label, 4 Cellars.
By Jameson Fink
With platinum records, sold-out tours and numerous awards, what’s left for country music band Little Big Town to prove? Always up for a challenge, the group has stepped up to the plate to create signature wines. The four members (Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman and Jimi Westbrook) have transferred their collaborative spirit from stage and studio to the vineyards, and the result is 4 Cellars. The debut releases are a Chardonnay and a red blend.
Discover the band’s passion for wine, along with the story of how the four came to realize the perfect spot to start 4 Cellars would be Walla Walla, Washington.
Tell me about your history and experience with wine prior to 4 Cellars. Do you recall the first glass of wine you had? Or an “aha” moment?
Karen Fairchild: As a band, we love sitting down together to have a good meal, drink a great bottle of wine and just really take time off-stage to catch up and appreciate the moment. Wine for us has always been a part of our celebratory moments—definitely a memorable one is our toast after our first Grammy win—but it is really about taking the time with each other, breaking bread together and the fellowship throughout the years.
Phillip Sweet: Over time, I, and well, I think each of us, grew to really enjoy the complexity that exits in wine. If you think of music as being a symphony for your auditory senses, then wine is a symphony for your palate. The different acidities, aromas of oak or fruit, those all play in different ways as you savor it. And, like music, it is different for everyone. Everyone has a different experience for a song, even though two people may be listening to the same one.
The members of Little Big Town (L-R Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet) enjoy the fruits of their labor.
What brought you to downtown Walla Walla? And how do you go from sipping wine in a tasting room there to launching Washington State wines of your own?
Kimberly Schlapman: Mutual friends introduced us to Andrew and Browne Family Vineyards in Walla Walla. We were already fans of their wine, and especially after meeting Andrew, it really clicked for us. Browne Family Vineyards is a family, and so is Little Big Town. This had always been a dream of ours, but in meeting Andrew and the team, we knew this was the right partner.
We have loved being a part of every process, and it feels like a home. Our kids even each have a section of vines named after them at the vineyard. It’s been amazing experience, and we can’t wait to continue to bring wine we love to our fans.
Jimi Westbrook: The partnership evolved really naturally from the friendship we began. We’ve been a band for a long time and have had individual side projects along the way that we’ve always supported each other in, but our wine, 4 Cellars, is the very first project that we have all done together with all four of us, outside of music.
It is just really special to us, and [it’s] something that has been such a passion point and whole other type of creative experience that we’ve been able to go through together, which after almost 20 years as a band, is such a great feeling. We didn’t want to do just anything together. It needed to be something unique and lasting, like the music we try to make together, and something that was organic to us and something we all loved. And, for us, that is 4 Cellars.
Courtney Browne, the members of Little Big Town and John Freeman, winemaker for Browne Family Vineyards.
How involved in the winemaking are you? And what do you find most surprising? Challenging? Rewarding?
KS: I think one of the great things about the process was that we had a say in every aspect. Our winemaker, John Freeman, would take our notes about what we were tasting and would translate that into the blends that we created, and what our ideas are for future blends.
PS: We tasted a lot of wine during harvest with them, fruit right in from the vine, fermentations and then single-varietal and blended wines, to wines with stainless steel, neutral barrel or moderate to new oak treatments. It was such a great opportunity to experience our love of wine on another level. You just really do have a whole new respect for every bottle of wine that you open, the dedication, heart and time that go into making each bottle.
KF: It was similar to making an album in the way that you start out with an idea of what you want to say, the songs you have in mind, but you are then open to where the creative process takes you to come up with the best final result that you all love. And for us, everything from the packaging to how it was reaching our fans was just as important. We wanted to create an experience that also went along with the bottle of wine and everything you needed for a perfect night. Just add friends.
Your songwriting process has varied from splitting into different writing combinations to co-writing as a group. How was it similar or different from creating wine? What was the group dynamic like?
JW: Just like how the best song wins, the best wine wins. You have to be open in both processes to being true to your overall vision, but not at the expense of really experiencing the process along the way to come up with best result. For us, with songs, it is about the harmony and what is best for the song. We all have different ranges, and our voices individually have different places they can go.
PS: We all have very different palates, but overall, the process was about coming together and creating something that we all loved, stood by and are beyond excited and proud to share with our family, friends, fans and each other. It was a very familiar feeling to us in that way.
A signature barrel.
You’re on the road traveling the country and the world. Do you make time to explore new restaurants and wines, or visit vineyards? What are your favorite discoveries near and far for food and wine?
JW: We love to explore wherever we are. We are fortunate in a lot of ways to also have so many friends and people we have met along the way who have been so good to us with recommendations while we are in town. We want to know the local hole-in-the-wall places. Sometimes, we are only in town for one night for a show, which is why the times we can go are really so special to us. And it’s why we bring our favorite beverages on the road with us.
KF: I loved every place we went to in Australia this year. It was one great culinary experience after the other. We are scheduled to headline C2C [Country 2 Country] this year, the UK’s largest country festival, and we are already making our lists of places we are going to try and get to while we are there.
What are your top places to eat and drink in Nashville, from spots that are more T-shirt and jeans to an elegant date night out?
KF: Dinner in Nashville just keeps getting better and better. I love the squid-ink pasta at Rolf and Daughters and the pork belly [ham] pizza at City House. For a quick and delicious lunch, I love the fish sandwich at Fin and Pearl.
KS: My favorite restaurants are for a casual meal, Sopapilla’s in Franklin. For a date: Park Cafe in Sylvan Park.
A friendly chat among the barrels, with wine.
Kimberly, as a cookbook author (Oh Gussie!: Cooking and Visiting in Kimberly’s Southern Kitchen) and Cooking Channel show host (Kimberly’s Simply Southern), do you get to cook at all on the road? Or find inspiration as you travel for new ideas, new dishes?
KS: Oh my stars, wherever we go, I find inspiration. Even if it is that when we are traveling, I can crave the feeling of home and want to make something that reminds me of that, like my Mama’s biscuits. Working with Browne Family Vineyards on 4 Cellars has made me automatically think of what wines best pair with my recipes, which has been such a fun new way to experience entertaining guests for me.”
Does the rest of the band get to be recipes testers for you?
“Yes!” (Everybody, in unison.)
JW: All the time!
Do you have a favorite wine pairing for one of your signature dishes?
KS: I love my Simply Southern Fried Chicken recipe paired with our White Blend (from the second wine shipment). It gives a great fresh balance to fried food.
JW: Those two together are just amazing.
Last year I answered wine questions from Nashville songwriters. What wine questions do you get from your fellow musicians?
PS: We get all sorts of questions, like what is the difference between French and American oak? How does that affect tannin? People have heard it’s the grain tightness of the wood?
KF: What is the easiest difference to distinguish between Cab and Merlot?
JW: How does stainless steel not leave a taste in the wine?
KS: Can we have a bottle? That has been the most asked question!