Sample olive oils and balsamic vinegars at the flavor-filled Brown County shop

By Sherri Dugger
Photography by Josh Marshall

Cari Ray remembers the first time she walked into an olive oil and balsamic vinegar sampling room. It was in 2009 at a shop in Michigan. She tasted several of the store’s offerings and “fell in love with the flavors,” she says. “I walked out with a case.”

Ray now hopes to inspire those same feelings of passion in customers—whom she affectionately refers to as “Wild Ones”—who enter her Brown County tasting room and store.

Ray and business partner, Michelle Damrell, opened The Wild Olive in Nashville’s Big Woods Village building in May 2012. The idea to open the shop was born, first, of necessity. Ray, a singer/songwriter, was looking for a second income stream that would leave her more time to focus on her music. The second reason to open the store was simple: It was a good idea. “I was surprised no one had done it here,” she says. “It’s such a great fit.”

The few stores Ray says she had visited tried “to do an elegant thing with their tasting rooms,” she says. “It comes off as unapproachable. Our idea was to create a vibe that was bright, warm and inviting.”

And their idea worked. Despite the shop’s original second-floor spot (the store has since relocated to the first floor of the same downtown Nashville building), The Wild Olive has met with quick success, thanks—in part—to its sweet-tasting offerings. The shop is lined with rows of flavored balsamic vinegars and olive oils that guests can sample before deciding on what to buy.

The Wild Olive offers approximately 40 flavors of single varietal and flavor-infused oils and balsamics, with options like basil, garlic, Tuscan herb and black pepper olive oils and garlic cilantro, red raspberry and coconut white balsamic vinegars, all bottled in the store.

The store’s balsamics are made in Modeno, Italy. Its oils come from California and places as far away as Argentina and Spain, depending on the quality of each season’s groves from year to year. Ray and Damrell purchase their products from “importers who buy from both hemispheres so that we can buy the freshest oil we can,” Ray says. “These olives were hanging on a tree within the last year, which is really important to the quality as well as the naturally occurring health benefits.”

Ray goes on to discuss polyphenols, the natural antioxidants found in fresh olive oils, but which are often lost in brands on the shelves of big box stores. The health benefits of both olive oil and balsamic vinegar are listed on The Wild Olive’s website. Balsamic, said to be high in cancer-fighting antioxidants, is touted as a natural appetite suppressant. Olive oil, a natural anti-inflammatory, is said to lower cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk of coronary disease.

Beyond the health aspects, balsamic vinegar and olive oil are most often thought of for use in salad dressings and marinades. But they can be used for so much more, says the shop’s co-owner. Ray uses “balsamic as a condiment,” she explains. “I will take hickory balsamic and drizzle it over a turkey sandwich. You’re going to use half as much as you would a regular condiment  because you don’t need much. It (balsamic) gives new life to foods.”

The Wild Olive also sells local honey, produced specially for the store, as well as gourmet pantry items like mustards, tapenades, marinades, stuffed olives and spice blends. Later this year, Ray and Damrell hope to create a section of their store dedicated to “local flavor,” Ray says, which will feature locally made or grown foods.

In the end, it might come as a surprise to some that a dedicated musician spends so much of her time selling kitchen goods, but Ray’s latest venture is, in fact, closely aligned with her other artistic impulses. “People often say to me, ‘You’re a musician; what are you doing with an olive oil store?’” she says. “Cooking and being in the kitchen, creating color and flavor, have always been another creative outlet for me.”

The Wild Olive
44 N. Van Buren St.
(812) 988-9453