The following appears in the January issue of California Sportsman:
By Chris Cocoles
“I like a good Cabernet from a Napa Valley vine.” – From Craig Morgan’s song, “A Whole Lot More To Me”
His hypothetical LinkedIn page would boast a lot of past and present job titles: country music singer/songwriter, outdoors TV host, business owner, U.S. Army and Army Reserves Veteran.
“I’m not a sit-still kind of a guy,” 53-year-old Craig Morgan says about his busy lifestyle.
You can now add a wine connection to the resume, but Morgan’s affiliation with the label that bears his name is hardly a sign that he’ll soon join other celebrities turned vintners/winery owners like Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Andretti, Dave Matthews and Joe Montana.
Yes, Morgan now has a cabernet sauvignon bearing his name and personalized label. No, Morgan is not about to trade his Tennessee farm for a Napa Valley vineyard anytime soon.
“I just became a wine guy who loved wine about 20 years ago. And as my knowledge grew, so did my desire to be more involved,” he says of this grape-infused project. “Having said that, I never want to own a winery. I never want to be a winemaker or nothing like that.”
Still, it’s difficult to not consider Morgan a bit of a wine savant. So when he collaborated with a company called Lot 18 to create Old Tattoo, which is being released this winter, it only strengthened a passion for good wine, particularly enjoying a glass or two with some of the wild game this outdoorsman has harvested for years.
Old Tattoo – its American flag logo matches the ink that adorns Morgan’s left arm – is flavored by grapes from Paso Robles, one of the Central Coast’s hidden gems for wine lovers. While Morgan helped in determining the cabernet’s flavors –“hints of coffee, cocoa, currant, dark cherry, graphite and plum,” the wine’s introductory press release explained – he was mostly in tasting mode as blends were tested. But the entire approach was based upon his name being attached to as close as vintners can come to producing an organic wine.
And for someone who prefers to eat his own harvested game and fish, Morgan’s fascination with wine was one that was a more natural blend.
“One in particular that kind of started it was a wine called PlumpJack, which is a partner of the Cade Winery in Napa. The one thing that I loved about the PlumpJack was that it was organic,” he says. “It’s very rare that you find an organic wine against one that isn’t. And I just fell in love with it – a fabulous wine.”
“If I did have a dream job and it was in that industry, I would much rather be the guy doing the tasting and putting my nose up to it than being the one who’s making it … I did a ton of tasting. I basically was able to say, ‘This is what I like.’ The surprising thing was, once we bottled it and I got the first bottle, I thought it was even better once it was bottled than when we did the initial tasting.”
Morgan also took to heart the message of another of his favorite winemakers, Sonoma County residents and avid sportsmen Andy Wahl and Bill Kerr, whose red and white varietals of Ammunition Wines are catered to fellow anglers and hunters (California Sportsman, September 2017) and specifically targeted to pair with not just traditional dishes but also wild game like venison, duck and upland birds.
While Morgan’s idea wasn’t to market his wine for a specific audience – “I just wanted to have a wine that at that price point ($22 a bottle) you would be super excited,” he says – it’s clear he wanted Old Tattoo to showcase who he is as a hunter and organic eater. It’s how he was raised.
CRAIG MORGAN GREER’S FAMILY made do with what it had in their Tennessee home. Kingston Springs is a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town of about 2,000 along Interstate 40 west of Nashville. Craig’s family – like many in that part of the country – had a passion for hunting. But it was far more than just the sport of it that got his parents outside.
“As much as they enjoyed it and that it was local and on public land, it was really for the meat,” Craig says. “My family and parents weren’t trophy hunting; they were hunting for the meat.”
“We were eating organic before organic was a term. But it was out of necessity more than a choice. When you’re born into a lower-middle-class income family, you have to do those kinds of things. So we grew up eating wild game or pork from pigs that we had raised ourselves. We had a better idea of what was going into our bodies than most.”
That lifestyle never left Morgan’s mind as he progressed on his own path – first during 17 years in the Army, and then as his singing career elevated him into a fixture on the Nashville music scene.
“Now I’m in a position in my life where I can afford to go buy what I want to eat, but I choose to hunt because I know the meat that I’m getting is going to be better for me,” he says. “It’s going to be cleaner. We try to use that term a lot in our house: eating clean. But it was very much a part of my life and still is, probably more so today than it was then.”
As his career took off, Morgan’s passion for hunting scored him a gig as host of Craig Morgan: All Access Outdoors, an Outdoor Channel series that chronicles adventures from around the globe.
Among the most memorable episodes was a California turkey hunt with friend and former major-league baseball player Ryan Klesko.
“We donated a hunt with he and I to the (National Wild Turkey Federation), and I’ll never forget the lady who bought the hunt; she was so excited to be out hunting with Ryan and I,” Morgan says. “We all killed turkeys and it was just a phenomenal hunt (near San Francisco). It was awesome because we hunted for a few days and then got to visit all the wineries.”
So yeah, Morgan has been quite busy from those early days of subsistence hunting with his family in rural Tennessee. Around the turn of the century, he cut his first album to kick off a successful career that’s included 17 singles that reached the Billboard country charts and a No. 1 hit, “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” in his discography.
Ironically, making records, touring, hunting in exotic locales around the map and all the other perks that go with celebrity status have complicated life for Morgan, an avid family man. (He and Karen Greer, his wife of nearly 30 years, had four children but lost their son Jerry to a tragic swimming accident in 2016.)
“I think at this point in my life I’ve been doing the music for 15 years and I know it’s something that I’ll probably do until I’m gone. But it’s only once facet of who I am and what I do in my life. My family is always going to come first and a lot of people would question that, just because of the amount of time that I spend with them, which is so little,” he says.
“But I tell my kids all the time that I make a choice as a dad to make certain sacrifices in order that they and my wife and family are better off. And one of those choices was choosing this occupation, which requires me to be away from home a lot.”
And having so much access to the beauty of the outdoors has also been a blessing in that Morgan’s family has joined him on many of his outdoor adventures, both on camera and off.
When asked about his favorite episodes of Craig Morgan: All Access Outdoors, while he’s enjoyed the tributes to veterans – Morgan’s Army background made it only natural that’s been heavily involved in giving back to the troops through charitable causes – his mind came racing back to his family. After all, that’s where his hunting passion’s roots grew from.
“Probably my favorite hunts to do throughout the filming are the ones that I do with my family, in particular my kids. I’ve always loved spending time with them in the outdoors and trying to educate them on the process,” Morgan says. “And I have something that a lot of people that get to do that don’t, and that’s the footage of it. So I get to go back and re-experience that with my kids, which is a real blessing.”
ONE OF MORGAN’S FAVORITE getaway spots is his cabin deep in the Alaskan bush, which he tries to get up to a couple times a year to recharge, hunt big game nearby and yank trout, grayling and Arctic char from an adjacent lake.
But despite how primitive the place is – a portable generator is the only source of electricity – the proprietor doesn’t sacrifice the luxury of a good glass of vino after a day of tramping through the wilderness far away from civilization.
“There have been times when we hunted and didn’t harvest. But we had meat from a previous hunt, and there’s something super relaxing about setting up camp afterwards. And (in Alaska), every night, around either the fire outside or the stove inside, we relax with a glass of wine. And it’s just a cool thing,” Morgan says.
The wine is just one business venture he’s partaking in these days. Back at their farm in Dickson, Tennessee, about an hour west of Nashville, Craig, Karen and the kids have started to build various custom items from recyled, reclaimed and repurposed materials.
UP TV has been filming a show that follows the family balancing their extremely busy schedule to make the business function. It’s hard to argue that Craig Morgan’s dabbling in the wine industry is more special, even if he sheepishly admits to one “wine snob” indulgence.
“My kids and my friends make fun of me that even in Alaska I have a good cab glass or at least a glass of some kind (to drink the wine),” he says with a laugh. “It may be a tumbler, but how bad is it that I don’t want to drink the wine out of a Solo cup or styrofoam cup? It has to be a glass.” CS
Of Craig Morgan’s many musical projects, one that he holds dear to his heart is a track he cut from his very first self-titled album in 2000. The song is titled “I Wish I Could See Bakersfield”, which pays homage to the Central Valley city of 375,000 that has a special place in the country music community.
The “Bakersfield sound” is a segment of the country scene that has produced or been influenced by several icons in the industry, including Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam. If California has an answer to Nashville’s place as the country music capital, it’s Bakersfield.
“When people talk about the California country, they instantly think of that Bakersfield sound, and a lot of guys in our world talk about that,” says Morgan, who has been working on a new album this winter.
That’s what makes his tribute to Bakersfield so special: Haggard, a Country Music Hall of Famer and legend in the genre, performs guest vocals on the track.
“It was more a tribute to a (Bakersfield) gentleman named Tommy Collins. Buddy Cannon, a good friend and producer-songwriter, had written that song as a tribute to Tommy Collins, who was one of Merle Haggard’s dearest friends and was a great songwriter and musician,” Morgan says.
Collins, who died in 2000, is credited as one of the fathers of the Bakersfield sound, along with Haggard and the others. Haggard died in 2016 in Shasta County, but Morgan will never forget the cameo in his Bakersfield tribute.
“Looking back, people are always asking me about some of my coolest moments. I have a photo of Merle and Tommy from when he was in the hospital before he passed,” Morgan says of Collins. “And we were able play that song for Tommy. He was sitting with one earphone and Merle had the other earphone in.”
Haggard’s recitation in his own personal tribute to his buddy Collins went like this:
He said ‘You know, I used to be a well-known country singer.