Meet Napa Valley Sommelier, Wine Educator and Playwright Traci Dutton | Lifestyles
I met Traci Dutton when I took her incredibly informative wine tasting course at Napa Valley College in St. Helena in November. The two-hour class stretched to three and a half hours without anyone noticing because Dutton had so much to impart.
I also found out that she is a playwright and is opening a vintage food antique store in Calistoga. When I asked her how many hats she wore, she replied, “I don’t wear any because I don’t look good in them.
Dutton is a fountain of wine knowledge, casually referred to as “wine person,” to put it mildly. A highly respected teacher and taster, she is also a sommelier and has worked in some very impressive venues. His professional career spans 39 years – 24 of them at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone – but his love of the craft dates back to his childhood.
“I love to learn and as a child my short list of professions was writer, chef, schoolteacher (like my father) and nun. I told myself that if I wasn’t married at forty, I would go to a convent. Luckily I got married, but I’ve always had a vocation for service and in the hotel business, that’s really what we do.
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Saturated in the arts
Raised in a middle-class Irish Catholic family with four siblings near Cleveland, Ohio, Dutton’s parents passed on their love of music, film and entertainment to all of their children. The family then moved to New Jersey, one bridge from Manhattan.
“My favorite aunt, Betty, took me to the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel in New York when I was five and told me I walked through the dining room like it belonged to me.” she declared. “She loved taking me to fine dining establishments to watch me absorb it all. I credit her for introducing me to the world of fine dining and hotels.”
Dutton also fell in love with acting. “Every Christmas one of my brothers would buy the whole family tickets to a hit Broadway show, and I remember seeing George C. Scott in one and thinking ‘there’s General Patton on stage’ .”
“Candide” is the show that changed his life.
“Leonard Bernstein wrote the score and I had never heard music like it,” she said. “It was also done in the round with ‘orchestra’ seats in the middle of the floor and risers that went up like a stadium. We sat on swivel stools so we could turn around to see the action unfold while around us and it was amazing.
When Dutton was 14, his father moved the family to Foster City in Northern California. Her older siblings had already left home, and at this difficult time in her teenage life, moving was extremely difficult.
“I hated California and felt like an alien. My goal was to get out of there as fast as possible,” she said.
The Writer’s Hat
After graduating from high school early, Dutton moved to Brooklyn Heights, New York. With only vague writing aspirations, she took a job at a Häagen-Dazs store frequented by Arthur Miller and Truman Capote.
“It was the coolest place at the time for artists and writers and I remember serving Miller an ice cream cone. He looked straight out of 1950 and seemed to be wearing the same clothes all time,” she said.
Dutton was writing poetry and short stories at the time and was also a peace activist. She didn’t think she could afford to go to college, but says she “spent so much money going to theaters and world-class restaurants that I could have gotten 10 college degrees.”
The romantic notion of being a writer in New York faded after a few years, and Dutton took a job as a dining room manager at the Striped Bass in Philadelphia.
At 22, she became a sommelier at Andiamo! an Italian restaurant near Lincoln Center. She added quietly: “I also held that title at Montrachet, the best French restaurant in New York at the time, but I was not the somme chef.”
During a severe winter snowstorm, she became trapped in her home for several days when her front door was blocked by a snowdrift. She kept in touch with her friends and family by phone and when her parents noticed the sunny California weather, she decided to go back and try again.
Moving to San Mateo, Dutton befriends the chief of 231 Ellsworth where they both work.
“He found a restaurant for sale in Saint Helena which we tried to buy. The deal fell through, which I am now grateful for, but it introduced me to Napa Valley where I felt I would fit in,” she said.
Dutton applied for a job as a master cheesemaker at the CIA, but “when I showed up for my interview, they told me they had just lost their wine buyer and offered me that job instead. The job was ‘beverage manager’ and I told them I would take it if I could get the title of sommelier. They accepted because at the time there was no formal training or certification for sums. You just needed to have the experience, which I had.
The revived writing
After a few years, the CIA asked Dutton to write about food for the magazine and the university’s marketing department, and she later became the wine and beverage editor.
Dutton’s love for writing was rekindled. When the call for entries went out for the Upstage Napa Valley Playwright Festival, Dutton responded by mulling ideas until one day “it just came out.”
“Being able to write this play and finish it was a great accomplishment,” she said. “‘Peace, Love, and Understanding’ was a turning point for me, and accepting it was a big bonus.”
A few years ago, Dutton opened a boutique in Calistoga which she is now trying to reinvent. The Heirloom variety offered vintage and antique culinary and beverage tools and equipment, tableware and glassware, culinary arts and crafts, and many books.
“It’s a walk in the past with a unique culinary vision. I believe that our culinary history is part of our personal history, as a family and as a nation. I consider the family cookbook to be the family bible. I haven’t given it up completely and maybe a partner or a team will do it now.
A brand new hat
The last few years of teaching at the ICA have made me realize that not enough time is spent teaching people how to taste.
“That’s my personal interest and focus right now, and that’s why I started teaching the tasting course, which I already plan to expand,” Dutton said.
Like many people in their 40s, Dutton is trying to figure out how to spend more time doing what she loves and less time doing what she needs to do.
“I have an idea for a musical based on the Broadway hit ‘Tommy.’ It’s very 1980s, about a boy genius playing Donkey Kong. I call him ‘Kong King.’”
Dutton also thought “how cool it would be” to have a website where people “could tell little bits of their life story…everyone has a story”.
To learn more about wine and cooking classes at Napa Valley College, visit napavalleycookingschoo.org or call (707) 302-2452.
Upstage Napa Valley is now accepting submissions for their second annual Playwrights Festival taking place this fall. Email [email protected] for details.
Zia Wesley is an author of fiction, non-fiction, and memoir. She lives in Calistoga.