A WINEMAKER’S WANDERINGS: All the World’s a Stage


Allison, the general manager of Channing Daughters, my wife and my partner in past theatrical pursuits, likes to say, “The curtain goes up when you turn into the winery driveway.” Indeed the long dramatic path through the sea of vines is bucolic and magical-an everyday reminder of the dramatic life of the winegrower and wine business.

Lately on the drive through the vines, performance has been at the front of my thoughts and on the tip of my tongue.

For instance, teaching demands a particular kind of performance that is both scripted and improvisational. The classes I teach at the winery and at venues like the Astor Center in New York follow well-researched lesson plans but leave room for tangential exploration. So a recent class on the Loire Valley might dance from Sancerre, sauvignon blanc and Kimmeridgian soils, to Sleeping Beauty to beurre blanc and muscadet, to François Rabelais, all the while trying to keep the group focused, engaged, participating and entertained. Sometimes eliciting audience participation is like pulling teeth and other times I’m clinking glasses and gesturing wildly just to get them to quiet down for a moment to listen to an important point. Often the best learning and most memorable points flourish from dialogue that is slightly uncomfortable and controversial, whether it’s a spontaneous debate on the inconsistencies of sensory perception, on GMOs and organics, on alcohol levels in wine and what is “healthy” consumption.

One place where the event is never challenging and always celebratory is the wine dinner. This past April we enjoyed the grand opportunity to be the fifth winery to take part in the American Table series of dinners featuring American winemakers and brewmasters at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. Six beautiful tables and some 40 well-dressed guests graced the simple private room, the guests relishing in eight courses of food accompanied by 10 wines, interspersed with little vignettes performed by the sommelier and myself. One or both of us would get up between courses and riff on the pairings, the people and the coming together of the two places. It is always positive, sometimes a bit gushy, and totally improvised, yet with the safety of many oft-repeated and well-rehearsed sentences. In a setting like Per Se, it is most definitely what Allison calls “a theater for all the senses.”

The most flamboyant, maybe even farcical, performance I have participated in lately was the “Smackdown” at Roanoke Vineyards.  Five winemakers were brought together to blind-taste several wines in front of and along with the audience and duel it out to see who would emerge victorious. A serious and comical, fun and educational evening ensued, dominated by the dramatic definitive phrase “I disagree” and Roman Roth’s Cassius Clay-inspired poetry, leopard-print cape and boxing gloves. The chef, Tom Schuadel, moderated and tried to keep Eric Fry’s mockery of Tom himself and the beer-in-hand antics of Greg Gove at bay. (If you really want, you can search for “Roanoke Smackdown” on Youtube.) The evening was hysterical if slightly embarrassing and the performances of all who were involved were quite impressive.  While I attempted to play the role of the justice that evening, all seven acts (infant, school boy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon and mere oblivion) that Jaques lays out in his famous As You Like It soliloquy were on display by the wily band of players that night.

James Christopher Tracy is the winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, as well as a student candidate for the Institute of Masters of Wine.