Wine and music – or vice versa?
Sonoma County is rife with winemakers and musicians. There are winemakers who make music and there are musicians who make wine. Rich Little is truly in that latter category, a musician who also makes wine. Owner of Little Family Vineyards in Glen Ellen, Rich has been playing music since he was five years old. His grandfather, Charlie Webster Little, “who played anything with strings on it,” gave Rich his first guitar and it wasn’t long before he was picking out tunes.
“In kindergarten, we had all these building blocks, and I remember building a stage out of them to perform on,” recalls Rich. “I cannot remember a time when music was not an important part of my life.” And he comes by it naturally; both sets of grandparents are musically inclined, including his grandmother on his mother’s side, Lee Perrault, who played piano in clubs from Monterey to Alaska. She also wrote songs and recorded for Circle Records, which later became Fantasy Records. His mother was a jazz singer who also played bass with the San Francisco Symphony.
But the music doesn’t stop with Rich — his wife Joan and all four of their children play music. Joan is proficient on piano as is daughter Jacquelyn, who is more in tune with classical music. Daughter Jessica started on violin but now focuses on electric bass, and youngest daughter Julia plays both guitar and piano. The eldest of the bunch, son Josh, plays guitar as well, and also sings. The Cal Poly grad recently recorded and released a CD of standards backed by a jazz trio (plus one track, “Under My Skin,” that features the Cal Poly Jazz Orchestra). With songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Duke Ellington, there is also Josh’s arrangement of two rock tunes, Creedence Clearwater’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and Blue Oyster Cult’s hit “Burnin’ for You,” songs that you don’t normally find on a package like this.
With a family of six musicians, there is no wonder why one of the first projects Rich dove into when they moved to Glen Ellen in 1995 was to build a practice room in an old shed on the property. Over the years, it morphed into a recording studio. So now the whole family has an outlet to put their creative juices on tape without ever having to leave the property.
Rich and Joan, both originally from Modesto, moved to the Bay Area after college when Rich took a job as a computer systems analyst in San Francisco’s financial district in the 1980’s. They eventually settled in Petaluma, and Rich would commute daily to the city for his job. Finally giving up the commute, in 1995 they bought a piece of land off of Highway 12. The land came with some vineyards and a house that was built in the late 1800’s by Phoebe and George Hearst, parents of William Randolph Hearst. The history of the property and of the Indians that preceded them all is another story by itself.
Rich cashed in his chips (so to speak) in the computer world and when not playing one of his many guitars, was working to revamp the vineyards. “The Sauvignon Blanc vines were diseased, so we pulled them up and decided to plant other varietals in its place,” says Rich. “The land sits on hot springs and the soil is near perfect for growing grapes. We left the old vine Zinfandel grapes and planted a little more Zin, Syrah and Cabernet as well as some Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petite Syrah.”
They initially thought that they would grow the grapes and sell them to other winemakers, but after a few years of trial and error winemaking, the family decided to get serious about the craft and brought in Joan’s brother, Ted Coleman, to serve as winemaker. The award winning wines they have been making since the turn of the new century have led to a successful venture. They opened a tasting room and created their own winemaking facility, still leaving room for Rich’s rehearsal and studio space. While most of the wines they create are labeled Little Family Vineyards, they did branch out with a second label called Band Blend (which features Rich’s trademark red Fender guitar).
“Several years ago we decided to make a band blend, which would be just for the various musicians that would come out and to practice, play or record,” says Rich. “Rather than have them dipping into the wines that we sell in the tasting room, we made up a big batch of a great red blend and offered it to the guys. All they had to do was bring a jug.”
The wine was so well received by the musicians and everyone else that tried it, it made sense that the Band Blend label became a reality, and incredibly popular at that.
Rich continues to play throughout the area with a variety of configurations, playing mostly charity events, helping to raise money for good causes. He’s got a rock band, a country band, he plays out solo as a singer-songwriter, and he can do a solo gig with his Chapman Stick, a two handed tapping method discovered by Emmett Chapman on a guitar in 1969 and taught since then to players around the world. The unique instrument allows both hands to become equal partners, with the musician’s fingers lining up parallel to the fret board as a new musical language emerges – bass lines, lead melodies, chords and rhythms, simultaneously, and in any combination. Rich has long ago mastered the Stick, and even recorded an album of his favorite songs as a gift for his wife Joan.
His “Band Blend” CD as well as son Josh’s “Business Casual” CD of jazz standards is available at the Little Family Vineyards tasting room, along with a slew of great tasting estate wines. And there may be a new CD in the works before too long as well.