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Mar 24, 2015 1:47 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Walter Channing, 74, Remembered As Vintner, Sculptor And Family Man

Mar 24, 2015 1:47 PM

Catching a glimpse of Walter Channing Jr. at work often stopped his wife, Molly, mid step. She would stare across the field on their Bridgehampton property as he balanced precariously on a 20-foot ladder, wrapping up a business call on his cell phone with one hand, and a growling chainsaw patiently waiting in the other.

He lived extremely and dangerously, with mischievous imagination and unbound perseverance. Give him a body of water, he swam it. Give him a tree, he carved it and, sometimes, flipped it upside down, its roots waving in the air. Give him a barren swath of land, he planted a vineyard. And when faced with unbearable hardship, he rose to the occasion every time.

The sculptor, venture capitalist and Channing Daughters Winery founder died of complications of frontotemporal dementia on March 12 at 8:50 p.m. in Southampton, surrounded by his five favorite women: his wife of almost 25 years, Molly, and his four daughters, Francesca, Isabella, Sylvia and Nina. He was 74.

“It’s a big void, I must say. The guy was larger than life in many, many aspects,” Molly Channing said. “We’re just grateful we were with him as long as we were. But it’s a big emptiness when a person like that leaves.”

Born in Boston on September 23, 1940, Mr. Channing began visiting the East End in the early 1970s before buying land in 1979. The Harvard Business School graduate was a weekender for many years, as he was tied up in Manhattan with his health care consulting firm—later known as Channing & Weinberg, or the CW Group—that was one of the first of its kind and eventually expanded into a venture capital business.

But one day, early in his career, he witnessed from his downtown office window the demolition of a Hudson River pier, city workers moving it out to sea on barges to be burned. He immediately went over to investigate, and salvaged as much wood as he could.

“He was just horrified,” Ms. Channing said. “He worked with wood when he was a boy—not in an artistic sense. He had a ‘tree surgery’ business, he would call it. That’s just Walter being Walter. He was a tree trimmer.”

All at once, and rather unexpectedly, his love affair with wood was revitalized. He eventually converted the timber into furniture and large-scale sculptures—some eerily realistic, others purely abstract.

His two eldest daughters, Francesca and Isabella, grew up in his studio “under the sawdust and the chainsaws,” the latter recalled on Monday afternoon, and they learned to sleep through their father’s racket, which started as early at 4 a.m. when he was feeling particularly ambitious and creative.

They were all each other had. The mother of Mr. Channing’s children, Rosina Secco, had died in 1987 of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Francesca was 8 years old, and Isabella was just 5. A previous marriage, to actress Stockard Channing, ended in divorce in 1967.

“He’s really known and celebrated for his business endeavors and art and vineyard and sports, but what isn’t actually looked at—other than by our close family friends—is that he had to become a single parent,” said Isabella Channing-Secco, who is 7½ months pregnant. “And I think, for any man, that adds a dimension to life where you have to become a mother and a father. It’s a whole dimension to him that isn’t spoken about as much. But that had a huge impact on me.”

Mr. Channing made sure every day was an adventure for his two girls, Ms. Channing-Secco said. They would scavenge for tree roots at the local dump, build forts in the woods, and chase deer through the forest. He taught them how to cook, and genuinely asked for their opinions on his work.

He was patient, humorous, and “incredibly supportive and loving,” she said, “with a watchful eye and wildly creative parenting. He let me drive a tractor by myself when I was 6 years old, on my birthday. I’ll never forget it. I was counting down the days.”

Ms. Channing-Secco paused. “There was always some incredible journey to go on with him.”

On a whim in 1982, Mr. Channing planted his first chardonnay vines in a vacant potato field outside his home in Bridgehampton. Five years later, he poured his first vintage for a small group of friends. And, by the 1990s, he was officially in business, with a full-fledged team behind him—most notably, Larry Perrine and Christopher Tracy, according to Louisa Hargrave, who founded East End wine culture with Hargrave Vineyards in Cutchogue, now Castello di Borghese Vineyard and Winery.

“I always felt Walter’s vineyard wasn’t just a vineyard. It was, and is, an open space,” Ms. Hargrave said. “You wanted to run and be free there. It is totally liberating, for mind and body. You go there and you jump and leap around. You can’t help it, with the vineyard and the culture and the style of wines that Chris Tracey has made there. It’s never, ‘Do the obvious, the conventional.’ He tried something new.”

Every year, the winery hosts a harvest party, which is the last time artist Kimberly Goff saw Mr. Channing in public: He was inundated with love from his family—the winery is named after his daughters—and friends.

“He didn’t have a lot of memory for a lot of things, but he remembered the food,” Ms. Goff said. “He had his four beautiful girls all around him, kissing him over and over, with a big pile of food in front of him. He looked so happy. Those girls, and Molly, were the real high points of his life.”

Mr. Channing was handsome, quirky, charming and unsettlingly familiar when Molly Webb Seagrave first met him in the late 1980s. “I took one look at him and my whole body just relaxed and I said, ‘I know this person. I just know him,’” she recalled. “It was like looking in the eyes of the most familiar person you had ever known. It’s a hard thing to imagine.”

They married on September 16, 1990, at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, she said, followed by a reception at their vineyard. The couple had two daughters, Sylvia and Nina.

Just a few weeks before their 25th wedding anniversary, Ms. Channing will hold a three-mile memorial swim from Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett to Gardiners Island, which was once an annual tradition, until her husband’s health began to severely decline two years ago.

“We stopped doing it because, without him there, it took the heart out of it for us,” Ms. Channing said. “But now, it will be a nice token of our love for him. We will swim for Walter.”

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, April 25, at a time and location yet to be announced.

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