Walter Channing, founder of Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, died on March 12, as winds blew the cold winter away and the sap in his vines began to flow again. His beloved wife, Molly, and daughters, Francesca, Isabella, Sylvia, and Nina, were by his side.
I feel his loss deeply, having known Walter since the early ’80s, when, on a whim, he planted a few chardonnay vines on his Scuttlehole Road farm and came to my vineyard to confab with me and my then-husband Alex about things vinous. Not that we saw that much of him — he was too busy with his Manhattan venture capital company, his art projects and his family; we were too busy with our own vineyard. But every time our paths crossed, I felt his tremendous energy, always expressed with joy and whimsy.
I remember visiting him and his second wife, Rosina Secco, in their Manhattan apartment, where their young children were part of the fun and Walter’s wood carvings set a bohemian tone. A Soho gallery, OK Harris, represented his work and also poured our wine at their opening receptions, so we had that in common, too. When in 1987 I heard that Rosina died, so young, of lymphoma, I wondered how Walter would raise their girls. Of course, he did it his usual way, with matter-of-fact intelligence, contagious curiosity and projects galore.
In 1990, Walter married Molly Webb Seagrave and soon thereafter transformed his hobby vineyard into a commercial venture by taking on the well-seasoned vintner Larry Perrine as his general manager (now CEO) and winery partner. Molly and Walter added two more daughters to the Channing Daughters quorum and, over the years, the winery grew and evolved into one of Long Island’s most celebrated and innovative brands.
The thing that always grabbed me about Walter was his generosity of spirit. He was up for adventure and enjoyed success, but it never seemed to be about him. His joie de vivre was sincere. His ideas were sometimes audacious. Rumor has it that his first wife, Stockard Channing, (whom he met and married while both were students at Harvard/Radcliffe) left him because she couldn’t stand his habit of leaping from rooftop to rooftop during some wild-and-crazy parties. So maybe his youthful exuberance went too far, but his work, however daring, was refined, smart and self-expressive without being egotistical. As an artist, he could look at a tree stump and not just see a woodland sprite in it; he could cut away at it so that the sprite emerged. What was there was intrinsic to the object; he just gave it freedom.
With his wine, I felt that Walter was the same way. His vineyard, planted eventually in an assortment of varieties ranging from that first chardonnay to blaufrankish and ribolla gialla, is also a sculpture garden. Instead of covering his acreage in closed rows of vines, he positioned his sculptures in a vast field. When you visit, you feel the dynamics of shape and perspective. You want to jog, spin or stride up, down and around the field.
Walter was a director of Outward Bound, an organization that teaches self-sufficiency in the wilderness. His vineyard is no wilderness, but the whole place offers an invitation to explore. You can feel his positive vibe there, in his work, his land and his wines.
Walter named his winery for his daughters. It was never about him. And he didn’t make his wines, but he hired a winemaker, Christopher Tracy, who makes wines that express Walter’s originality, spirit and, ultimately, love. Like Walter’s sculptures, Chris Tracy’s wines are idiosyncratic. They are all different. They offer surprises. But at the same time, they are made with passion. Chris didn’t start out as a winemaker; he was an actor, a pastry chef, a member of Channing’s wine club who took his excitement for the place to a new career.
As much as I know that Walter Channing will be missed, I take happiness and optimism from the knowledge that his life’s work can continue in the same way he intended it, with a daring, exploratory, generous intention.
A number of years ago, I visited Channing Daughters at a time when spring was in the air and, it seemed, everyone working there was in love. Jokingly, I called it “the love winery.” I still think of it that way. When you boil it down to its essence, that’s what Walter Channing conveyed, all his life.
Note: As I was preparing this column, I learned of the death of Bob Pellegrini, owner of Pellegrini Vineyards. Rather than give either Walter Channing or Bob Pellegrini less than they deserve, I will write about Bob in a later column.