Continental Divides

A Gift for LeAnn Rimes

Reservations are highly recommended – even on a Wednesday evening in autumn when the celebrated singer-songwriter and her husband booked a table for two

By John McCaslin

If decades of column writing has taught me anything it’s that the most fascinating and successful people in this world are also the most modest and unassuming. 

So I picked the snowiest of days to drop in on Emily Meester of Woods Bay Wine, hoping the wintry blast would provide her a moment to reflect on a most inspiring story circulating around Flathead Lake.

But it was business as usual for the happily married mom of two young children, who was busy preparing the “du jour” menu for eager patrons no blizzard could keep from one of Montana’s best-kept secrets. 

Five intimate dining tables in all (the patio provides additional seating during the summer season), where Emily and her accomplished husband Dave Meester painstakingly pair exclusive old world wines with creative fresh cuisine.

I get straight to the point, explaining to Emily that I’d heard about a recent impromptu musical performance at the restaurant and might I write about it? True to form, she would have to think about it. Three days later I was invited back.

A sixth-generation Montanan, Emily grew up on a farm in Big Sandy. “My great, great, great, great grandma … came up [the Missouri River] on a steamboat into Fort Benton in 1864,” she proudly recalls.

From an early age Emily took an interest in music, blessed with “wonderful teachers” in Big Sandy, Fort Benton (trumpet lessons), Kalispell (private vocal instruction), and ultimately Missoula, where she enrolled in the University of Montana’s School of Music, concentrating on vocal performance and music management.

“Being from small towns, with the sports and the community, music was my way to be a part of all that: singing in choirs, playing Taps for the Memorial Day parade. When you’re from a small town that feels like everything. It was quite an honor.”

While at Missoula, Emily embarked on the Vienna Experience, joining a select university choir that studied abroad and performed extensively throughout Austria, France, Italy and Eastern Europe.

Upon graduation she accepted an internship with a music management company in New York City, where she also worked for a real estate law firm. Living in Spanish Harlem was quite an experience, but she “missed skiing and gravel roads too much, so I came back to Montana.” 

She would split her time between Kalispell and the destination ghost town of Virgelle, where for eight seasons she was a river guide and cook (al fresco dining, albeit, with homemade lava cake and crème brulee).

“Dave was chasing me at that point,” she laughs about her husband, who had grown up at his family’s Point of Rocks Restaurant in Olney, which sold in 1994.

All of which explains Emily and Dave’s notable success, initially with Gourmet Galley, which transformed into Woods Bay Wine in 2018.

“Rotating seasonal, always fresh,” Emily describes the menu, “but also meant to be enjoyed with the wine we are featuring that week.”

And yes, reservations are highly recommended – even on a Wednesday evening in autumn when celebrated singer-songwriter LeAnn Rimes, who Emily has long admired, and her actor-husband Eddie Cibrian booked a table for two.

“It was so sweet,” Emily says of an older local couple who didn’t recognize the celebrities.

“They chatted with everybody and at one point asked Rimes where they were from? And she said, ‘Oh, we’re from the LA area.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s nice, I was in LA once – went straight to Disneyland the second I returned from Korea! What do you think of Montana so far?’”

Meanwhile, every time Emily stepped from the kitchen the same elderly gentleman would announce: “And here comes the best opera singer in the world!”

Which obviously piqued Rimes’ curiosity. So much so that at the end of the night the Grammy artist asked Emily if she would mind singing for her?

Spontaneity aside, Emily agreed: “It’s going to be acapella, so if it’s a little pitchy keep smiling, to which she laughed.” 

Emily performed a stirring three-minute aria, her operatic leaps and trills moving Rimes to tears.

“You were just cooking our food!” Cibrian gasped. “How did you do that?” 

“Before I sang I said to LeAnn, ‘This is going to be fun for me and hopefully for you as well. Instead of being the singer, you get to be sung to. And it’s an honor for me to do that for you.’”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.