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Meet Napa Valley sommelier, wine educator and playwright Traci Dutton

I met Traci Dutton when I took her incredibly informative wine tasting class at Napa Valley College in St. Helena in November. The two-hour class stretched to three and a half without anyone noticing because Dutton had so much to impart.

I also found out she is a playwright, and is in the process of opening a vintage culinary antique store in Calistoga. When I asked her how many hats she wore, she said “I don’t wear any because I don’t look good in them.”

Dutton is a fountain of wine knowledge, casually referred to in the business as a “wine person,” which is quite an understatement. A highly respected teacher and taster, she is also a sommelier who has worked in some very impressive venues. Her professional career spans 39 years — 24 of those at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone — but her love of the business goes back to her childhood.

“I enjoy learning and as a child my short list for occupations was writer, chef, schoolteacher (like my dad), and nun. I told myself if I wasn’t married by forty, I’d join a convent. Luckily, I got married but, I’ve always had a calling for service and in the hospitality business, that’s really what we do.”

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 their kids. The family later relocated to New Jersey, just a bridge away from Manhattan.

“My favorite aunt, Betty, took me to the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel in New York when I was five and said I walked through the dining room like I owned it,” she said. “She loved taking me to fine dining establishments to watch me take it all in. I credit her with introducing me to the world of fine restaurants and hotels.”

Dutton also fell in love with the theater. “Every Christmas, one of my brother’s bought 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” was the show that changed her life.

"Leonard Bernstein wrote the score and I’d never heard music like that," she said. "It was also done in the round with the '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 to see the action taking place all around us and it was incredible.”

When Dutton was 14 years old, her father moved the family to Foster City, in Northern California. Her older siblings had already left home, and at that difficult adolescent time of her life, the move was extremely hard.

“I hated California and felt like an alien. My goal was to get out of there as fast as I could,” she said.

The writer’s hat

After finishing 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 the likes of Arthur Miller and Truman Capote.

“It was the coolest place at that time for artists and writers and I remember serving Miller an ice-cream cone. He looked straight out of 1950 and seemed to wear the same clothes all the time,” she said.

Dutton wrote poetry and short fiction 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 the theatre and world-class restaurants I could have gotten 10 college degrees.”

The sommelier hat

The romantic notion of being a writer in New York faded after a couple of years and Dutton took a job as dining room manager at the Striped Bass in Philadelphia. 

By the time she was 22, she had become the sommelier at Andiamo! an Italian restaurant near Lincoln Center. She added in her understated fashion, “I also held that title at Montrachet, the best French restaurant in New York at the time but I wasn’t the head somme.”

During a brutal winter snowstorm, she became trapped in her home for several days when her front door was blocked by a snow drift. She stayed in touch with friends and family by phone and when her parents remarked on the sunny California weather, she decided to move back and give it another try.

Relocating to San Mateo, Dutton became friends with the chef at 231 Ellsworth where they both worked.

“He found a restaurant for sale in St. Helena that we tried to buy. The deal fell through, for which I am grateful now, but it introduced me to the Napa Valley where I felt I’d fit in,” she said.

Dutton applied for a job as cheese master at the CIA but, “when I showed up for my interview, they told me they’d just lost their wine buyer and offered me that job instead. The job was 'beverage manager' and I told them I’d take it if I could have the title of sommelier. They agreed because back in those days, there was no formal training or certification for sommes. You just needed to have the experience, which I had.”

Writing rekindled

After a few years, the CIA asked Dutton to write about food for the college’s magazine and marketing department, and she later became the wine and beverage writer.

Dutton’s love of writing was rekindled. When the call for submissions went out for the Upstage Napa Valley Playwright Festival, Dutton responded by ruminating on ideas until one day, “it just came out."

"Being able to write that play, and finish it was a big accomplishment," she said. "'Peace, Love, and Understanding' was a turning point for me, and having it accepted was a big bonus.” 

A few years ago, Dutton opened a store in Calistoga that she is currently trying to reinvent. The Heirloom Variety offered vintage and antique culinary and beverage tools and equipment, dishes and glassware, culinary objets d’art, and lots of books.

“It’s a walk down memory lane with a singular culinary vision. I believe our culinary history is part of our personal history, as a family and a nation. I think of the family cookbook as the family bible. I haven’t given up on it entirely and maybe a partner or team will make it happen now.”

A brand new hat

The last few years of teaching at CIA brought the realization that not enough time is spent teaching people how to taste.

“That’s my personal interest and goal right now, and why I started teaching the tasting class, which I’m already planning on expanding," Dutton said.

Like many people in mid-life, Dutton is trying to figure out how to spend more time doing what she loves and less doing what she must.

“I have an idea for a musical based on the Broadway hit 'Tommy.' It’s very 1980s, about a boy genius Donkey Kong player. I call it 'Kong King.'"

Dutton has also been thinking “how cool it would be” to have a website where people “could tell little pieces of their life stories … everyone’s got a story.”

To find out more about wine and culinary classes at Napa Valley College, visit napavalleycookingschoo.org or call (707) 302-2452.

Upstage Napa Valley is now accepting submissions for their second annual Playwright Festival taking place this fall. Email info@upstagenapavalley.org for details.

Zia Wesley is an author of fiction, non-fiction and memoir. She lives in Calistoga.

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