“I’ve always wanted to write about the wine world,” says Sharon Evans. “It’s usually presented as a bunch of snobs, and I know it’s not.” Before she and her husband, John Ragir, founded Live Bait Theater in 1987, Evans worked for two years as a sommelier, a job she fell into while performing monologues around town and waiting tables at the Paradise Cafe in Lakeview. One day the restaurant’s sommelier told her he was leaving and suggested she take his place. “He’d take me to tastings and gave me books to read,” says Evans. “We stayed up late tasting wine and taking notes.” Though she “probably wasn’t totally ready when he left,” she held the job for a year, and then went on to become the assistant wine buyer at the gourmet market Convito Italiano.

At Convito she met a lot of vintners from Italy and fell in love with their wine. “They were very European and polite and said, ‘If you’re ever in Italy, come and see our vineyards,'” says Evans. She took them at their word: in 1985 she and Ragir spent their four-week honeymoon touring Italian vineyards. “Going to the source is a profound experience,” she says. “When you go to Italy and taste Chianti with Italian food, it makes sense the way it just doesn’t in this country.”

Her new romantic comedy, Blind Tasting, is set in the heady world of fine wine. In the play, a sommelier-to-be and his wife, a Renaissance scholar, spend their honeymoon in Tuscany; later he teaches his assistant how to handle a tasting, an experience she likens to “retaking my SATs with my tongue.” Evans wrote the lead role with a specific actor in mind–Mark Richard, with whom she’d worked at Convito, and who also spent his honeymoon in Italy. She asked him to read the script months ago, but he didn’t seem that excited by it. “I didn’t want to assume she had something in mind for me,” he says now. “I was trying not to seem too interested.”

“I didn’t want Mark to feel like he had to do this because of me,” says Evans. “I thought, ‘Maybe he doesn’t like it.'”

Set designer Mary Griswold suggested that Evans meet with Peter Amster, a director who’s worked everywhere from Northlight Theatre to the Lyric Opera. “It was like a blind date,” says Evans. “You meet and you talk. But I kind of thought he was out of my league.”

But Amster–who’s also a wine aficionado and has traveled to Italy several times–was intrigued. “The idea of developing a new play appealed to me, after so many years of doing operas and romantic comedies and nothing that was written after 1949,” he says. “I love wine–particularly Italian wine–and was moved by the script. There’s something magic about the place that’s very much evoked in the script. It changes peoples lives and how they appreciate the world.”

Evans didn’t tell Amster she had Richard in mind for the lead, but when Richard came in to read he outshone everyone else at his audition. “I turned to her kind of angrily and said, ‘Where have you been hiding this guy?'” says Amster. “When I found out, I wanted to brain her.”

Over the ensuing six weeks of rehearsals, the three have taken turns bringing in bottles of wine to educate the cast and one another–and to help unwind after long stretches in the theater. The after-hours tastings even wound up contributing to the script. “A new speech was created about pinot grigio,” says Amster. “Most of it is bad, but I found some that was good and brought it in, and we all kind of had a pivotal experience.”

Evans met Joseph Spellman–former sommelier at Charlie Trotter’s and one of only 115 master sommeliers in the world–a few years ago when he spoke at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Now at Paterno Wines International, he looked over the script at her request. In developing his character, Richard has hung out with Spellman and a group of other local sommeliers who meet once a month to talk shop. He, like Evans, says they’re regular people who happen to possess a lot of specialized knowledge, although Spellman, he says, “bears some striking similarities to the character Sharon wrote.”

Preview performances of Blind Tasting are Saturday, May 24, at 8 and Sunday, May 25, at 7; the show opens June 1 and runs through July 20 at Live Bait, 3914 N. Clark. Ticket prices range from $15 to $20. On Wednesday, June 11, there’ll be a free panel discussion at the theater with Spellman, Amster, Richard, and others on the art of wine; on Wednesday, June 25, Vin Divino president Seth Allen will lecture on Italian wine. For tickets and more information call 773-871-1212 or see www.livebaittheater.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.