Sara Watkins, 36, has already carved out a notable, decades-long music career. She became one-third of progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek in 1989, playing fiddle along with her brother Sean, a guitarist, and mandolinist Chris Thile (who now hosts NPR's Live From Here, previously known as A Prairie Home Companion). The Grammy-winning, platinum-selling group went on to release six albums before Watkins struck out on her own in 2007.
Watkins, who also sings and plays guitar and ukulele, has since released three solo albums, the most recent being Young in All the Wrong Ways, in mid-2016. She has appeared on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series and founded the Watkins Family Hour, a bluegrass collaboration that grew out of impromptu jams with family and friends in Los Angeles. Her latest project is a trio called I'm With Her, whose debut album See You Around came out earlier this month.
Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth spoke with the enophile-musician about her early wine inspirations and how a great wine is like a rare Rolling Stones vinyl.
Wine Spectator: How did you get started in music?
Sara Watkins: Sean, Chris and I were kids growing up together [in Southern California]. We would listen to this band at the pizza parlor. They played Beatles, Muddy Waters, a whole mix, and on bluegrass instruments, banjo, fiddle and guitar. And so we eventually became a band ourselves.
WS: And then what drew you to wine? Were you drinking wine in that pizza parlor?
SW: It was cheap beer back then [laughs]. It wasn't until we went over to France for a music festival and we were backstage. In the States, it's always cheap beer backstage. But there it was a keg of wine and all this cheese. And for us at the time, we were blown away by the hospitality and sense of sophistication of it.
WS: And from there it grew?
SW: Yes. After getting back to the States, I visited Napa and tasted at a few places like Swanson and Pine Ridge. We [the band] were really wowed by the experience. I could see how there was something romantic and enticing to the process of making wine. I began to learn how all these differences—the soil, the care the winemaker takes—have an effect on the wine.
WS: What's one similarity you've noticed between wine and music?
SW: The consumption. Someone described it to me by saying, “If you could only listen to music on vinyl, and each vinyl record could be played just once—and then imagine if the Rolling Stones released an album and there were only 30,000 copies.” Well, you'd invite friends over to make it a better experience. It might not be the perfect analogy, but I think wine is so experiential in that way.
WS:Who are some of the winemakers you've spent time with?
SW: I went on a trip to Burgundy in 2016 with a friend. We tasted at Chandon de Briailles, Lucien Le Moine, Mugneret-Gibourg. It was overwhelming for me in a way—two or three big tastings a day for a week. But it was fascinating, because in Burgundy we tasted just two grapes all week [Chardonnay and Pinot Noir], and yet everything was so different. It was compelling, as I got to see how the creation of any craft—wine, music, food—has similar sources of inspiration.
WS: In your song "Move Me" you're asking for someone to inspire you rather than just "keep the peace," as the lyrics go. Do you approach wine with the same desire for excitement?
SW: "Move Me" is about the frustration of not keeping relationships going as people and things change. And that's what makes them alive. I want a wine to unveil itself. The first sip, taste, glance of anything should be very different from the last one as you discover new things about it through the night, or through life.
WS: And so with wine, you don't just stick with what you know?
SW: What's to lose by trying something new? There's so much I don't know about wine. And I think that's actually a fun place to be.