At Channing Daughters Winery, winemaker and partner Christopher Tracy is far from limited to using only the well-known Long Island varietals or constrained by a particular methodology.
In fact, his cellar style is mainly defined by just one common denominator: making the best-tasting wines.
“We want wines to be first and foremost delicious,” Tracy said in a late winter interview at the Bridgehampton facility. “We try to push the envelope and try to expand our horizons and varieties.
“We tend not to be too ideological,” he added.
The result is a portfolio featuring a wide range of wines, from vintages that have been completely managed in the cellar to those that have been allowed to ferment on their own without intervention. It encompasses stainless steel-fermented chardonnay as well as blends made using blaufränkisch and dornfelder grapes grown at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s research facility in Riverhead.
“He’s an artist with a palette with a lot of different colors — in this case it’s grape varieties and techniques,” said Channing Daughters co-founder and partner Larry Perrine. “These things are out of the mainstream, and the mainstream is clogged. We’re more interested in things that are not being done by everybody.”
Tracy, who became winemaker in 2002 and a partner in 2006, makes every single bottle the winery produces — from its dry, clean Scuttlehole Chardonnay to its red blend, Rosso Fresco — largely without full-time help in the winemaking facility. (The vineyard crew, of course, pitches in during harvest.)
The winery now produces about 12,000 to 14,000 cases in a given year, with roughly a dozen whites and reds each vintage, as well as a series of vermouths called VerVino, made with local wine and botanicals.
While Tracy, who earned a B.A. in performing arts and philosophy before attending the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, is focused on expressing the best qualities of Long Island terroir, he isn’t locally grown himself.
He got his first taste of a vintner’s life growing up in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1970s and ’80s. His parents owned Heinemann Mountain Vineyard in St. Helena, Calif., and sold pinot noir and riesling to Joseph Phelps Vineyard and, later, Schug Carneros Estate in Sonoma.
“Wine was a big part of our lives. It was part of our daily meals,” Tracy said. “I made wine in garbage cans when I was a kid.”
A trained actor and chef, Tracy and Allison Dubin co-founded the not-for-profit Momentary Theatre in 1993, which performed in California, New York, Texas, Connecticut and Hungary. He spent the ’90s working as a pastry sous chef at New York’s March restaurant and was executive sous chef at Robbins Wolfe Eventeur. It was during those years that he and Dubin, who is now Tracy’s wife and Channing Daughters’ general manager, began venturing east.
“We started to explore Long Island seriously in the mid-1990s. We just wanted to know our local wine region,” he said. “It sort of just happened, as life does.”
They decided in 1999 to visit every winery on eastern Long Island, back when there were only 30 or so producers. (That number is now closer to 50.) It was then that they had a fortuitous “magical” day on the South Fork.
The couple immediately clicked with Perrine and signed up for the vineyard’s wine club. At the time, the number of members was in the low double digits.
“Chris and I would just stay and pepper Larry with questions. We were just hanging around a lot and we were very interested in what was going on,” Dubin said. “Instantly we became part of the Channing Daughters family.”
They became regulars at the Scuttlehole Road facility, and Tracy later poured in the tasting room. But the origin of their professional relationship began when Tracy suggested the winery make a
chardonnay fermented with ambient yeast in new oak barrels.
Perrine rolled with it.
“I said here are six barrels, here is the juice, go ahead,” Perrine recalled. “He would come out here and he would take care of his baby.”
The result was the first vintage of L’enfant Sauvage — which Perrince called a “really rocking wine” — and the winery has produced it every year since.
Perrine offered the couple full-time work in 2002.
“I got two super-talented, highly motivated, interesting people to work for me and with me who became great friends and eventually partners,” Perrine added.
Both Dubin and Tracy credit the winery’s founder, the late venture capitalist and sculptor Walter Channing, with allowing them freedom in running the business.
Although Tracy largely taught himself how to make wine, he notes that producing wine on Long Island isn’t done in a vacuum.
He cites Long Island wine industry pioneers Louisa Hargrave, who helped establish the region’s first commercial vineyard in 1973, and Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich — among others — for sharing a wealth of knowledge as to what works here and what does not.
“I feel lucky that I had an entré to those people,” he said. “If it weren’t for all those men and women, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”
Dubin noted parallels between the play in acting and the play involved in her husband’s work.
An example? The creation of the winery’s VerVino vermouth, fortified wine steeped in locally foraged and farmed botanicals. Each batch features more than 20 ingredients. There’s a spring vermouth made with beets, arugula and fennel and a red autumn blend that incorporates Asian pear, pumpkin and butternut squash.
“It’s all grown within five miles of the winery,” Tracy said. “It’s a really cool local project.”
The couple’s children also pitch in. Cooper, 9, shovels compost and the couple’s twins, Twyla and Talula, now 4, have been helping to pick grapes since they were 2.
“This is not our work, this is our life,” Tracy said.
Today Tracy no longer cooks professionally, though he says the family eats a home-cooked breakfast and dinner nearly every day. Winemaking, he says, allows him a similar creative expression without the monotony of being forced to constantly make the same dishes.
“One of the things I don’t love about cooking is there is so much repetition,” he said. “Winemaking and cooking are not so different. It’s just a bigger pot of soup.”
He also has no regrets about pursuing his path on the East Coast, rather than in his home state or other western wine regions.
One reason is that Long Island isn’t suffering a water shortage, a challenge for those who make a living in agriculture on the West Coast. Long Island also offers prime access to the New York City market and the damp, cool climate here keeps life interesting for vintners.
“We get the best of both worlds living and working where we do. I value where we are,” he said. “It’s not an easy business. It’s always challenging and that’s pretty rewarding.”
This story was originally published in the 2016 edition of the Long Island Wine Press