She's a musician and a designer, he's a creative-minded winemaker, and together they're Something Big Cellars. Kate is well known in Walla Walla as a designer and masterful musician, often playing around the area with her band The B Side. Sean is a winemaker with a family farm coming up on its 100th birthday. But with Something Big Cellars this couple is doing more than the average Washington winery, they're building a business together and at the same time making wine just for you. Mick Jagger was wrong -- you can always get what you want.
Sean and Kate Morrison of Something Big Cellars
If I came to you and said, "Hey, I want to name a wine after my horsedog and put him on the label and serve it at his birthday party!" you could do that?
Kate: Yup. We've set it up where, for a 5 case minimum, I'll do a custom label and have it printed and affixed to the red blend we currently have. There will be others in the future
Sean: Which is kind of our other goal -- custom labels but also custom wine...when we get there.
Wait, what if I was having a fancy wedding and wanted a picture of us young lovers on the label?
Kate: Yes, we'd do it all. We're a bonded winery so the front label would be yours and the back label would say Something Big Cellars. So it's really all yours! And it's fun for us too because we get to do this together. We have always done out separate things -- I've had my design business for a long time and Sean has worked at Abeja, Canoe Ridge and Morrison Lane -- but this allows us to meet in the middle and really work together.
Sean: And going forward, as I get access to different grapes, we'll be able to do even more artistic expression with putting specific blends together for people.
So if I wanted Malbec for my fancy personalized wedding wine, I could have that?
Sean: We could possibly put it together.
Kate: We buy the fruit from Morrison vineyard, which is fabulous because it's one of the oldest in the area and it produces really great fruit. It also keeps everything in the family, which is an added bonus.
Where did this idea come from?
Sean: Well it kind of all started out when we put together a red blend together for Morrison Lane. We had more than we could use and needed to find a home for the rest. We were planning on putting it in shiners and, all of the sudden, it just kind of became obvious that we should do our own label -- and labels for others -- instead.
Kate: We started helping with the Morrison Lane rebrand, which will come out in the Spring, and in the meantime we put this 1000 case thing together. I designed the label, Sean made the wine, and we did everything around it together. We thought, "Wait, this is a huge thing! If we can do this for ourselves, we can do it for other people." I am a freelance graphic designer so for me not being stuck in the confines of designing labels for only one brand was really exciting.
Sean: Yeah, it didn't really fit into the idea we had for the Morrison Lane rebranding and we didn't want that to get muddled up, but we still wanted to do custom labels. In trying to pare that down, all this other opportunity kind of sprung up at the same time and led to this.
Kate: So we started with some labels for friends and family. My sister is a neurosurgeon and she wanted a "Brain Elixir" label so we made that one for her. We also did one for ourselves too, the "Charming Red" which was just really inspired by MaLynda Paulson's artwork out here in our tasting room and also by my first CD, Price Charming. The last song I wrote was called "Something Big". It doesn't actually say what the something big is so it could really be something totally tiny, but it means the world to us -- which is this. If it never becomes a huge company that's fine, because we like working together and exploring together, and we have a pretty unique opportunities to make things happen. So in addition to what we're doing with Morrison Lane, because it's family, this avenue is going to open up some opportunities we might not actually have otherwise had.
Some of Something Big's personalized labels
Sean, do you also make the wine for Morrison Lane?
Sean: Yes, starting this vintage. My brother Dan did 2002-2006 at Canoe Ridge then they changed hands and no one could do custom crush there so we just focused mainly on our vineyard for a time. I came onboard 14 months ago and put together these 2009 blends, the 2010 Viognier, and took over the production side of things. Now I am just waiting to get my hands on that fruit.
And now you also have your own facility and tasting room??
Sean: Yes! It's a big change and a big relief because it's just been so complicated getting through vintages with all the starting and stopping and being all over the place. The vineyard has always been phenomenal and we really started building momentum with Morrison Lane. Then, right when we had a big vintage, around 2005, and it came time to start selling that, the economy slipped and we had to reevaluate and cut back for a few vintages. During that period I spent my time learning more and more and getting closer to being ready to get going again.
So maybe it was a little bit of a blessing in disguise?
Sean: Yes, I got to spend six vintages at Abeja.
Kate: Which was great because they were amazing and so supportive of Sean and of us when he left and with what we're doing now. We feel really blessed because the people that we really have a lot of respect for, and who support us, are people who we really, genuinely, like.
Sean, you're from Walla Walla, did you always want to be a winemaker?
Sean: Well, I went to school in 1993 and studied environmental science and chemistry. My dad planted the vineyard in 1994 and then my brother got into wine so I'd hang out with him at Canoe Ridge. I thought it was a lot nicer than my part-time packaging job with UPS.
I was in Bellingham for a long time, love that town, but found myself in 2000 with a crappy dead end job. I got my degree and then George Bush came into office. I just really didn't have the draw to city life and being an environmental professional there so I was able to transfer my part time job here, started getting into the wine business a little, and had the opportunity to do some part-time work at Abeja. That turned into a full-time position where I started learning from Ned and John. Then, Ned moved on and I moved up and did three big vintages on my own there -- I was ready!
Guess that's something to actually thank george Bush for! Kate, you're a bit of a local celebrity. What's that like in a small town?
Kate: I feel really lucky but also, we're both really quiet people, so we spend a lot of time just by ourselves. I have always been a musician -- I was classically trained and used to compete but now it's just more fun stuff. I'm actually going to be signing with a record label in the next couple of weeks but what's nice is, with this and the music and the art, everything seems to be coming together. It feels really like home and I can't imagine life without creating stuff -- whether it's music or design or what. It's exciting that now I don't have to do it for other people, I get to do it for us, for my family and for my friends. It's kind of funny because I didn't expect to be so well-supported in the music thing because there are so many different musicians doing great things but I feel like people have just responded so well to everything I'm doing.
Sean: It is kind of weird for her in town though. Her sister came to visit and they were walking downtown and saying "hi" to everyone on the street. Her sister was like, "It's like you're the freaking Mayor or something!"
Kate: I love it here though -- this feels like home and it always has. In a town like this I feel like people like us get opportunities we wouldn't otherwise have. I'm a big fan of chasing opportunities where you can but I feel like there are a lot of things that just sort of "happened" because we were here and because we were open to them. People really support you here.
I've heard that over and over again about this town -- people are less interested in competition than they are in helping each other succeed.
Sean: I think that's what sets the wine industry apart in the valley. It really is different. The majority of the wine community is really supportive of each other and not worried so much about competing.
Do you think this propensity for teamwork is an offshoot of the area's agricultural heritage -- both in terms of "help yourself buy helping others" but also because of the proximity of the actual crops?
Sean: Yes. Most people here know their growers -- it's not just getting grapes from X, Y, and Z. You have more of a close personal relationship with everyone involved. People know the guys in the crew that work on their vineyards.
Kate: I think people really like the family aspect of it. A lot of the work is and has been done by families.
Kate: Well, um, I dunno! We're working on a big proposal for a private label for a Chinese company. I met with an export expert on how to do that and it turns out he's got a client who wants a private label so...I think it's going to be just one project after the next after the next!
Sean: We do have a brand that we're working on as well.
Kate: I came up with this label design and once we really started talking about it, we really like the idea - it's called "Girls' Night". There will be a red, white and a rose. If the brand does well in the marketplace, we will actually sell the brand and all the materials - web site everything. Kind of the whole package. Why not? A lot of people want to start a winery but don't know how and this is an easy way to get started.
Sean: The hardest part of starting a winery is picking a brand. If we can get this one proven it could be really valuable.
Kate: And I did a label for a friend of mine who's a diver and also a winemaker so she's going to start her own brand and we just kind of stepped in to help her get going.
What are you going to do when you have too many orders?
Kate: I dunno. I suppose that could happen
Sean: At that point we'd have to turn into negotiants. Which we may be able to do.
Kate: Well, I feel like sometimes people are like, "Ugh...another winery?" but really, we've been here for a long time. I used to work at L'Ecole -- I'm actually painted on the wall by the ladies room, I'm the blond waitress. Sean is 4th generation Walla Walla and the Morrison vineyard is coming up on being a century farm. It's been in the same family since 1918 so I guess it's just that it's just not a "new" winery -- it's got history and is kind of the culmination of things coming together. We finally figured out a way to make it together.
Sean: My grandfather took over the farm when he was young, after his dad died. My dad had a career with the railroad and came back to the farm and planted grapes late in his career. Then my brother and I came back and started in the wine industry. Even this facility has a history -- back in 1997 when my dad started selling grapes, Rusty Figgins took some of them for Glen Fiona and this place was constructed to be the original Glen Fiona facility, which started the whole Syrah thing. The flagship of Morrison Lane will be the Rhone blend, with all the best Syrahs, and now Kate is on board and we can take it all to a whole 'nother level with Something Big Cellars. All the best stories are connected in this valley. We're not going anywhere.