It’s hard to believe it’s been 17 years since you crossed over the rainbow. I’ve come to love this expression, it’s easier and sweeter than just saying “since you’ve been gone” or “since you passed away.” I’ve also been grappling with how to write about my dad and convey who he was and what he meant to me. I guess what strikes me most about him is that he was someone who never did things half way and almost always followed his passion. And most often his passions became obsessions that then turned into businesses. My dad was a fascinating, complicated, brilliant man, who had so many interests it was hard to keep up with them or him! And whether we — mom and I, liked it or not, we became part of these passionate pursuits of his.
He grew up on the Lower East Side of NYC, the oldest of 3 boys, first generation of a Polish immigrant family. My grandparents both came from tiny “shtetls” in Poland and settled in New York in the early part of the 20th Century. Dad learned to love music, art, jewelry and numismatics from his dad, a self-taught lover of the arts. Though grandma preferred that he work for the Post Office or some sort of Civil Servant job, dad’s passion for music drove him to become a musician and later a teacher. At least he became a teacher I’m sure that’s what grandma thought, because it was a good solid job. But why should he do anything that was considered traditional? Even his choice of instrument, the bassoon was unconventional! The first to go to college, he went on to go to the Manhattan School of Music and graduate and later go on to teach. But again why do anything that was conventional? Be a teacher, that’s good, get married that’s good, so how the heck did he take a detour and start dealing in Russian Numismatics? I never really understood that detour, but in between teaching gigs, he took a left turn and turned a coin passion he had into a new business. He told me stories of how he would go off to Germany and go to the auctions for coins. He’d start speaking Yiddish because he thought they’d understand him, — it was close to German he thought, only to get yelled at by the auctioneers! “Mr. Kowalsky German, not Yiddish please!”
Ok back to the world of music and teaching. Our little family moves from Brooklyn to Westchester because dad decides to go back to teaching and becomes the music director for a small school district in the village of Tuckahoe. His first love really was music. I can still remember him making his reeds for his bassoon. My favorite memory was sitting on his lap as he’d play Peter and the Wolf. Together we’d play this iconic bassoon piece, he’d hold the bassoon and do the notes while I tried to blow into the reed. He loved being a music teacher and many of his former students stay in touch with me which I really love! His passion for music translated over to me and I picked up the flute and tried my tiny hands at the piano. My talent for the flute never made it to the piano and eventually he let me quit — hands too small could barely reach an octave!
We were always a food loving family, but in the early 70’s when wine was still a mystery, dad once again found a new passion. He became obsessed with wine and did everything he could to learn about it, master it and eventually this passion, turned obsession, turned into more than a hobby and became a business. He was a pioneer in the early days of wine exploration. He and his “cronies” as he’d call them, were some of the most celebrated people in wine at the time, many going on to become legends in the business. Icons like Bill Deutsch, Don “Zachy” Zacharia, David Milligan, Lou Iacucci, Filipo (Phillip) DiBelardino, were all part of dad’s circle of wine friends. My parents were always entertaining and throwing grand wine dinner parties with guests from the wine world like Barry Bassin, Harry Waugh, Michael Broadbent and so many more. Dad went on to run a wine tasting chapter of Les Amis Du Vin in Westchester and I can still remember being recruited to help. I promise that I will write about Les Amis — as it was affectionately called, at some point, it’s too much for this blog.
But again passion turned obsession, turned into business and dad left the teaching world to go into wine full time. He followed his passion and became yet again a pioneer with 800 Spirits, the first nationwide gift giving service for the industry. Before there was a computer — yes kids at one time we had no computers only typewriters, dad pioneered a catalogue company that became a model for what is today on-line sales of wine and spirits. Mom was gifted a typewriter and I was enlisted to help with the catalogue as well, because, well dad never did things alone, we all had to be part. Again this deserves a whole chapter to itself!
Not one to stay put, he then went on to found the First International Wine Expo, was was sort of a precursor to VinExpo USA, but the industry was not really ready for this and he moved on to the next chapter of his life, which was art and antiques. I believe that if you love music, it’s only natural that you love art as well. Wine is a form of art and it’s no wonder that so many people in the industry are art collectors or music lovers. It’s all woven together — art, music, food, wine. At some point along the way dad’s passion for art — he wrote his thesis on the Hudson River School Painters, morphed into a passion, then obsession for a type of china called Flow Blue. Passion once again led to obsession and led to business. He became a prolific, many would say obsessive, collector, dealer and author of Flow Blue.
Our house had so much china in it I felt like I had to walk around in bubble wrap so I didn’t break anything. The poor UPS guy basically lived here because we shipped out so many boxes and got in so many boxes of china that I think we were his only stop some days. As always, dad’s businesses were a family affair and mom and I were packing central. We were enlisted, like the army, to pack up all he was selling; and unpack all he was buying. Ugh, to this day I hate the site of packing tape or that sound!
Food, wine, art, music, dad was a true, Renaissance Man, as mom always liked to call him. Even on his last night, when he was surrounded by his friends and family, we ate one of his favorite meals of bagels and lox — which of course he had to tell us all how to eat properly. A teacher to the end, that was dad. He wanted everyone to share in his passions and obsessions. He taught me how to follow my passions and for that I am forever thankful, and mindful, it is why I cook and am in the Wine and Spirits business today. So I will toast you today with a great glass of wine, maybe I’ll make one of your favorite foods, and serve it on a Flow Blue plate while I listen to Brahms your favorite composer.