There I was, in an anonymous Memphis hotel room in the heat of a sweltering summer day. I was clutching the phone receiver with one hand while the other hand was busy… pouring wine.
Don’t get any ideas. I was turned on by the occasion, but that’s because it was Wine X’s first-ever simultaneous telephone tasting. My partner on the other end of the line was the Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers. I’d heard Emily was a co-owner of Watershed, hands-down Atlanta’s hippest wine bar/restaurant. But when I learned she actively chooses the restaurant’s wines, I knew we had to hook up.
Easier said than done. Emily was in the midst of a marathon nine-month, 160-city tour for the Indigo Girls’ latest release, Come on Now Social. And I was spending the entire summer criss-crossing the continent in a giant Toastermobile. (See the next issue of Wine X for a slice of life on the road.) Atlanta was on my schedule, though. So I called Watershed to see what we could do.
The restaurant, actually located in Decatur, just outside Atlanta, has an exceptionally well-chosen wine list, and the kitchen’s sophisticated riffs on down-home Southern cuisine are to die for. (I’m still jonesing for some of the white bean hummus.) Over more than a few glasses of wine, Watershed’s owners (sans Emily) and I became fast friends. Susan Owens, an old college friend of Emily’s from Tulane, is in charge of the restaurant’s retail section, and she and Emily both buy the wines. Ross Jones deals with accounting and business operations. And Leslie Zweben oversees the kitchen. It’s all very cozy: four best friends; two couples (Emily and Leslie; Susan and Ross); one restaurant. But still no Emily.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. So I had four California reds shipped to Emily and me: Beringer Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon, Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon, Joseph Phelps Insignia and Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages — all from the excellent 1995 vintage. (Thank you, Darryl). On a weekend off from her tour, Emily called me from her getaway cabin she shares with Sue, Ross and Leslie. Over the phone, we sniffed, sipped, gurgled and laughed as we tasted our way through our wines.
Emily Saliers: I’m drooling over these wines. I can’t wait.
Bob Blumer: Let’s try the Cinq Cepages first.
BB: Can you describe where you are right now? I mean, without giving the specific latitude and longitude.
ES: I’m in a cabin in north Georgia, where we’re all seated around this gorgeous poplar table. And the dogs are outside barking ’cause they can’t come in.
BB: Is there a lake?
ES: A couple miles away.
ES: (undecipherable laughter) And we’re in a valley surrounded by trees. Pretty bucolic.
BB: What’s goin’ on?
ES: We’re skippin’ ahead… to the Beringer.
BB: This is gonna be a short interview. Whadda’ya think?
ES: I get a lot of alcohol in the nose and a lot of cherry up front. Cherry, chewy, smoky. We’ve had the Beringer Reserves since ’91. The ’93 reserve’s one of my favorites. We stocked up on the 93s ’cause they just blew our minds. All the Beringer Reserve cabernets are so balanced, deep and chewy.
BB: Do you have a private stash?
ES: Yeah, I keep most of it at a friend’s house. They have a temperature-controlled room. Their stuff’s all neatly packed away in wooden wine racks and ours, of course — since I’m on the road and our lives are in limbo — are still in the case boxes.
BB: How many bottles do you have?
ES: Around 700.
BB: Do you take wine on the road with you?
ES: No, we drink wine on the road, but it’s too hard to transport. Amy [Ray] (other half of the Indigo Girls) doesn’t drink but most of the other band members enjoy wine, so after a show we’ll turn up the music and just sit and groove. We’re not focused on the wine, so it’s not really worth bringing a bunch of prize bottles. What I like is going into town on a day off and visiting a local wine shop. I pick out some of my favorites that are pretty reasonably priced, like the Grgich Hills cabernet and Mason sauvignon blanc. They’re delicious. And Estancia… the Meritage. I’m really into finding wines in the $20 range that’re really good.
BB: Since you tour so much, doesn’t it kill you to be away from all those bottles for so much of the year?
ES: For our cellar we only pick vintages that’re going to get better with age. They’ll sit there for five or six years… I’ll forget I even have them. It’s like this little present for the future. When I’m home, we go over to Sue’s place a lot… they have a pool and a place to cook out. That’s when we crack our nice bottles.
BB: Should we move on to the Silver Oak next?
ES: Silver Oak is one of my favorites, too. A few months ago we drank an ’84 and a ’78 Alexander Valley. They were so different from each other, but each was just wonderful. I love Silver Oak wines — the cedar and the oak. I love all that woodsy stuff. (Tastes) Yup, on the nose, burnt cedar and pepper.
BB: Way more tannin than the other two.
ES: Much more like a classic Bordeaux. You get that smoke and that cedar — my favorite kind of flavor. That’s why I like Bordeaux. You have your first sip and it’s like chewing on a pencil. I love that quality in big fat reds. This is the most fun interview I’ve ever done in my life.
|BB: Do you follow others’ advice in terms of what to buy and what to lay down?ES: Not really, I just go with the Mac Daddys that I’m sure of. Like all of these wines, for instance. And word of mouth. Like the Cinq Cepages. Sue found that. We just go by our palate a lot.|
BB: Do you remember your first glass of wine?
ES: It was at a seder, when I was about 10 years old. I remember thinking, oh my god, there are four of these and you get to drink them all. And then it was a very long time until I had another glass of wine. Sue really turned me on to wine in a big way.
BB: On the Lilith Fair tour… any favorite artists you played with or hung out with?
ES: We met a lot of people on Lilith Fair. As a matter of fact, we got our whole new band there. They were playing with Sinnead O’Connor and John Reynolds. Amy was asking for Sinnead’s help on some songs, and Sinnead suggested we ask John. So Amy started talking to John about her songs, and we started playing poker with them backstage…
BB: That’s how you audition musicians?
ES: They had music blasting, they were drinking red wine — cheap red, but that’s okay, we won’t judge them for that — and we were hanging out. Next thing you know, we’re talking about going over to John’s flat in London. And that’s where we started our last record, over there. Lilith was a definite shot in the arm for our career. We were feeling kinda bummed. And then we got out there and there was all that inspiration and great crowds… It really helped us a lot.
BB: Has Sinnead ever forgiven you for stealing her band?
ES: Sinnead changes a lot. She’s always reinventing herself. She moved on to other things. And not because of us. The band would’ve played with her again and we would’ve worked out the timing.
BB: Is there anyone you haven’t played with that you’d like to?
ES: I’d love to play with Stevie Wonder. I’d love for Gladys Knight to sing on one of our records. I’d love to do something with Joni (Mitchell), my personal favorite.
BB: We’re on to the Insignia.
(sounds of slurping)
ES: Wow. Awesome. Very long finish. We’re gonna do a quick comparison of the Insignia and the Silver Oak.
BB: Being the pinot whore that I am, I’m much more drawn to the Beringer, just because it’s softer. It’s funny, if you blind tasted it you might think it was a killer pinot.
ES: I hear you. I tasted that. And I’m not so much of a pinot person. Some pinots are so strawberry. So that’s probably my least favorite red.
BB: What’re they saying in the background there?
ES: Sue’s saying that the Silver Oak carries you from the beginning all the way to the end. It’s equally balanced. She agrees with you, Bob, about the pinot nose on the Beringer. Hey, do you know the Ponzi Reserve, the pinot?
ES: Oh, you gotta get some of that. I’ll send you a bottle of mine. You’ll dig it.
BB: One hundred and sixty shows is an awfully long tour. Do you burn out?
ES: Actually, it’s pretty well-balanced. We go home every three weeks or so and don’t play more than four shows in a row. And after touring we take breaks. The four of us are going to France and Italy in September. (Sips) By the way, we’re all sweating profusely.
BB: (laughs) This is tough work. What made the four of you decide to open a restaurant?
ES: We wanted to go into some kind of business together. I was just coming off the road, had about a half year off, and the four of us got together and tossed around some ideas and…
BB: What were some of your other ideas?
ES: Like, a moving business (group laughter). We even thought of a name for it: Elers Family Movers. It was so silly because it had our first name initials (Emily, Leslie, Ross, Sue) in the title.
BB: It could’ve been huge.
ES: Yeah. But instead we decided to open Watershed. We took our inspiration from stores like Dean & Deluca and Oakville Grocery — a cornucopia of hedonistic delights. We wanted it to be a mom-and-pop, and we wanted it to be in Decatur, which is a small community. We wanted a place where you could come in and feel casual and have an awesome wine by the glass. You can take wine home from the retail section, you can pick up flowers for your date or loved ones and then have some memorable food. But the longer our chef, Scott Peacock, stayed with us, the more Watershed became focused on the restaurant aspect. We rely on fresh vegetables and seasonal and organic produce. We support local farmers. Nothing comes from a can.
BB: (reacting to background chatter) What’re they saying?
ES: Sue’s eating chocolate with the Insignia. She’s freaking out.
BB: You said that Amy doesn’t drink at all?
ES: Not at all.
BB: Did she ever?
ES: She did. But she didn’t stop because she had to. She’s just very disciplined and it didn’t do anything for her.
|BB: So you don’t have to hide your wine in a paper bag when you’re drinking around her.ES: Not at all. She’s totally cool about it. She’s not judgmental about it. She’s a huge mountain biker, hiker and all that stuff. I’m really the hedonistic one of the duo.|
BB: And isn’t that part of what makes working relationships work… that each person brings something different to the table?
ES: There’s no doubt our differences have been why we’ve been together so long.
BB: When you pick the social issues you two champion, do you have to discuss them first to see where you side on them?
ES: For most every issue we feel the same way. Our stances come from the belief that people should treat each other well, and there’s great disparity between those who have and those who have not. We just look to systems of oppression, like corporate globalization for one, and try to get a foothold and do grassroots activism and work with mentors. So, for the most part, we’re really coming from the same paradigm.
BB: How do you feel about the Napster issue?
ES: I’m not sure yet. Amy and I are a big bootleg band. If you come and tape our show, that’s fine with us. But I also feel for musicians struggling and making their own records for 10 grand and then their music gets up on the ‘Net and someone’s able to trade it without paying for it. Then they can’t even scrape a living together.
BB: Did you ever think you’d find yourself in the position of being so commercially successful?
ES: No way. When I was a kid I used to write stories about girls who played guitar, who were on their way to success. I always played in clubs, and Amy played in clubs, and then we joined forces. Then we ended up going to the same school. But it was always like, hey, let’s learn some songs together. Or let’s play this nightclub. It was little by little.
BB: What was the sensation when your first album came out and you became a classic overnight success?
ES: Well, I never expected to be successful like that. We were just a couple friends making music.
BB: How’d you deal with it?
ES: It was hard at the beginning. I mean, overnight we became familiar names. The record sold a lot better than we expected. And then we won a Grammy. That’s about the only time in our 20-year professional relationship that Amy and I have ever fought… right when all that stuff was happening.
BB: What’d you fight about?
ES: It’s just that when you get so stressed you fight with the people you love most, ’cause you’re just so fucking stressed. It was just all of a sudden. Before, when we were a bar band, we’d play 13 nights in a row ’til three in the morning. But somehow it all changed when there was so much focus and pressure. And the gigs got bigger, and we were doing press, TV and all this stuff we’d never done before. I think it just kinda freaked us out. I mean, it was weird. It was a huge transition. But then everything settled down. So we feel really good that we’re still a grassroots band with a bar band mentality.
BB: It doesn’t take long to realize that you’re the same person on and off stage.
ES: Amy and I never had an image or anything. We were never sold by image. Which is one reason why we’ve had trouble getting a stronger foothold as the years pass. We’re not at the zenith of our career right now. We’re hanging on, but it’s not the way it used to be when, say, Rites of Passage came out. Now it’s more like we’re just playing our gigs and thankful for our fans who remain loyal. But there’s no image that we’re selling. We dress the way we dress. And the fact that we’re gay has a lot to do with it. There’s a lot of sexism in the industry… it’s such a male-dominated industry. And we just fight against that stuff.
BB: Has it become any easier over the years?
ES: I think so, some. I think it’s easier to be out as an artist than it is to be out as a teacher, or even as an athlete. For us, it’s always been easy because we’re entertainers. I remember when I was an adolescent — not even when I was coming out, but just during my adolescence — and there were certain artists I really hooked into. They were my outlet in life. And so I think, especially if you’re a young, gay person and you have a gay artist whose music you’re really into, it’s a very strong, positive force during a difficult time.
BB: How old were you when you came out?
ES: About 20.
BB: Does it make you proud to be an example like that for the next generation?
ES: I feel really fortunate across the board… that we’re able to live an honest life. It’s a lot harder for a lot of people. I don’t know if I’d have the courage if I were in other circumstances. But this is my situation, so I just try to be as responsible as possible.
BB: Do you ever get involved in politics?
ES: We don’t endorse candidates. But if you look closely enough, you can tell who we might vote for. We mostly support issues and causes, not candidates. We’ve had people who’ve wanted to come (to our shows) and do canvassing, but we draw the line there.
BB: I’m sure George W. tried to enlist you to write his campaign theme song.
ES: I have to say, I hope he doesn’t get elected. I hope there’s a day when the death penalty is abolished in this country. It’s barbaric and wrong. And a day when politicians aren’t so… so heavily influenced by money. We need more parties — stronger third, fourth or fifth parties, whatever it takes.
Speaking of more parties, the Indigo Girls’ tour continues until November 2000. For tour details go to: www.indigogirls.com.