Wine Talk: Des McAnuff

A California theater helped introduce the Jersey Boys director to wine, but going out on the road helped him broaden his palate
Sep 20, 2007

Theatrical director Des McAnuff, 55, has earned both popular and critical success for such Broadway hits as Big River (1985), The Who's Tommy (1993) and the Four Seasons musical Jersey Boys, which opened in 2005. Jersey Boys continues to be one of New York's most sought-after tickets and is now touring the United States. A two-time Tony Award winner, McAnuff will become one of three artistic directors at the Stratford Festival in his native Canada in 2008. But the theater isn't his only passion. McAnuff began to learn about wine when he worked in California for the La Jolla Playhouse as artistic director from 1983 to 1994, a time during which he helped bring the theater to national prominence. And his wine appreciation only deepened when he took his theatrical talents to Italy and France.

Wine Spectator: How did you get interested in wine?
Des McAnuff: I've got to say that I'm probably the most unlikely candidate to be interested in wine at all. I grew up in Canada, and Canadian wines at that time were primitive to say the least. For a long time, I was more interested in martinis. I was probably in my 30s before I got into wine. I definitely got more interested when I went to California. I would always associate theater fund-raisers with plastic glasses filled with oaky Chardonnay and toothpicks in cubes of cheese. After a while, you start to realize there are some great white California wines as well.

WS: What was the next step in your wine education?
DM: In 1995, I got to go through Italy scouting a movie I was going to do. I was working with Danti Ferretti, the great Italian designer, and Gabriella Pescucci, the great costume designer. We spent a lot of time touring Tuscany. We discovered Montepulciano and Montalcino. That was fantastic. We drank a lot of Brunellos and super Tuscans, but I particularly fell in love with Brunellos--and how can you not? I think part of it is atmospheric. I think people begin to fall in love with those wines the more that they travel. If you're sitting in Pienza in some little café with some Castello Banfi and you look around, it's as close to heaven as we get on this earth. You're constantly trying to recapture that moment, which I know is true for me.

WS: It seems that wine always tastes better in the place where it's made.
DM: I shot a movie called Cousin Bette in Bordeaux in the summer of '96, hanging out with a mainly French crew. That was a terrific education. We shot a lot of the film on a château called Du Bouilh. It was really an amazing place. It had been in the family since it was built in the 1700s. The owner of the house was executed during the Reign of Terror trying to help Marie Antoinette escape. The place really hadn't changed. There had never been electricity in the house. The family turned to making wines. The wine was really fabulous, though it's not widely known. Just standard Bordeaux, but I knew this wine was good immediately because everyone on the crew was thrilled with it! They were over the moon. What was frustrating when you're making a movie is maybe you can have one glass a wine at the end of the day. My ritual was I would have a glass while I made my shot list for the next day. They came up with a "Cousin Bette" vintage, [with a photo of] Jessica Lange, [who starred in the film], on the label. But I couldn't get it out of the country. It was really a shame.

WS: Have you started to collect wine?
DM: I haven't. But I've just bought a home, which is being built on Warren Street in Tribeca. It's a new building and I've bought a townhouse. I've been looking, with the help of friends, at an Avanti refrigerator so I can start collecting wines. I bought a couple cases of '97 Brunellos, and then I just drank them, because I had nowhere to store wine. I travel a lot. So, I'd love to start a collection.

WS: It sounds like you're a fan of reds.
DM: I think with wine, it would be a mistake, certainly with me, to prefer just one kind. It's the same with genres of art. Some people will define themselves by saying, "I only like comedies" or "I only like musicals." You tend to define yourself through the things that you like. With wine, I would hate to leave out anything because I always want to be open to new experiences. When I first started drinking wine, the idea of sweet wine didn't appeal to me. That probably goes back to my upbringing and the wine my mother drank. But I once had a lemon dessert with a really nice Muscat and that really opened the door.

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