Follow Your Passion

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.

Daddy Daughter Days

This time of the year always reminds me of the wonderful times I had spent with my dad in the City during the holiday season. I always looked forward to those Daddy-Daughter days when he was mine for a day and we could wander the city, go shopping and of course eat. It was a tradition that he and I would hop on the train to Grand Central and spend the day shopping up and down Madison and Fifth Avenues. We’d start out on Fifth, and stroll up the Avenue mostly window shopping until we’d get to his favorite place in Rockefeller Center — Teuscher Chocolates. This magical chocolate shop, was filled with all kinds of chocolates flown in weekly from Switzerland and wrapped in the most elaborate boxes, one more fantastical than the next. My favorite were the champagne truffles, which made me feel so grown up and sophisticated — oooh, Champagne was inside so it must be the best. Dad would get his dark chocolate covered orange peel and we’d eat them all as we strolled up the avenue. There was another location conveniently located close to one of his favorite wine shops, the original location for Sherry Lehmann, which was on Madison Avenue. So we had options and bribes. I’d bribe him to go up 5th with me and he’d get chocolate; and he’d bribe me to walk into Sherry Lehmann while he spent hours and hours talking about wine — then I’d get chocolates — and clothes.

Patience is not a Kowalsky virtue, I come from a long line of people without patience, from Grandma to Grandpa and Dad, who was basically impatience personified. I’d wait and wait until he was done with his wine shopping. Now that I think back on it, maybe taking me to go clothing shopping and chocolate eating, was his way of getting into the city to check wine shops, talk to his buddies and make me wait endless hours. I don’t really remember how I entertained myself, growing ever more impatient, but I knew that clothing was the light at the end of the tunnel. I’d tolerate the hours we spent looking at bottles and more bottles, and then he’d take me into Saks or Lord and Taylor. Now it was my turn, but again Kowalsky’s don’t have patience, so shopping with him was like speed dating with clothes. I’d say “Hi skirt, how do you do?” “Great we’re a match” so then dad would say something like, “Ok you like it, great, take 2, I don’t want to come back.” Once I figured this out, speed shopping was the best! Though once home, mom wasn’t so happy when she saw that I had the haul of the century!

But before returning home, we’d once again enter the glorious Grand Central Station, to make our pilgrimage to the cathedral of seafood, the one and only Grand Central Oyster Bar. But before I take you through my culinary journey with Dad, I have to brag a bit about an amazing experience I just had last week at the Oyster Bar, which jogged my memories of being there with dad so many years ago. One of my fellow Dames, from Les Dames d’Escoffier, invited me to the Canadian Oyster Festival, held there in celebration of the retirement of the Oyster Bar’s executive chef, famed Sandy Ingber who after 31 years decided to hang up his oyster knife. I helped my friend Michael Ann Rowe, the queen of all things crustacean, with a sparkling wine donation from Bouvet Ladubay. Bubbly and Oysters, a match made in heaven and I was in heaven! What an array of oysters to feast on, so many different ones from Canada all paired with the smooth, and creamy sparkling wines of Bouvet.

As I helped pour, my neighbor, one of the celebrated Canadian oyster shuckers from Raspberry Point, kept giving me oysters! It was a great night for sure, but it did make me think about all the great meals at the counter I had with my dad before we got on the train to go back home. Sitting at the counter was a right of passage, yes there were tables, but no true New Yorker sat at a table. There’s nothing like sitting at the counter, being served by the waiters and waitresses who had been there forever, under the vaulted ceilings designed by Guastavino. We’d start with a dozen clams on the half shell, dad loved them doused with cocktail sauce and lemon. Then we’d each get our favorite chowder — dad Manhattan Clam Chowder and me New England. The battle of the soup was on as we’d argue about which was better. Each soup was accompanied by Oyster Crackers and a bread basket with filled with savory crackers and rolls and hard as a rock butter on ice.

Bellies full, our final food stop was at Zaro’s for a black and white cookie for me, which I still think is the perfect cookie, a cake, a cookie, chocolate, vanilla all in one! We’d then hop on the train back home for the short ride up the Hudson. I loved these Daddy-Daughter days, true New Yorker days. And yes folks the City is New York, no arguments here, for me it’s the only one allowed to be called the City. Food, wine, shopping, NYC and dad that was a perfect day in my books.

Step with Both Feet Forward, Now Pivot!

The past year and a half has been interesting to say the least. At bit overwhelming at times to say the most! So here goes from the beginning the actual timeline of change: mom goes into hospital, new president joins my old company, mom passes away, new boss joins company, leave city after 20 some odd years, move back to childhood home, sell apartment in city. Then I decide I need more change so I leave my job of 29 years for the unknown. And that was only the first 6 months. Flashforward from there another 8 months. Change in life is inevitable, it’s how you embrace it and move forward that is the interesting part. You can chose to crawl under a rock, let it all overwhelm you or you can move forward and pivot – change direction and find a way out. I had only had one job in my career of working; I had never not worked as an adult. I was not in a position not to work, too young, not a trust fund baby, so I chose to find the way out — to strategically pivot and find a new path. After applying for similar positions to the one I had previously, I decided to pivot and set out on my own.

My high school friend, Allison Kluger lectures about Strategic Pivoting at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. To quote her, “Pivoting is an intentional, methodical process for nimbly navigating career changes.” Check her out, from being a tv producer to being a professor, she too had pivoted her career. In fact Alex Rodriguez is a guest lecturer about career pivoting. Tyra Banks also teaches with Allison as a co-lecturer on Personal Branding, much of which involves pivoting your narrative, your interests, and message as you evolve in your career.  Being nimble and able to take your own personal assets and find a new way to use them is really what life is about. How do we adapt and find that path forward that’s the main question and task. Once you’ve defined what you have to offer and have evaluated your personal assets, then you need to figure out how to use them! Simple, not so simple, kind of like putting a puzzle together but once the pieces fall into place the answer becomes more clear.

Behind The Scenes Strategic Pivoting - YouTube
Allison Kluger’s Class

I looked inward, reached outward and came up with creating 2 opportunities for myself and the pivot began! Blogger and Sales & Marketing Consultant for the Wine & Spirits Industry were the 2 paths I chose. I knew that I had a lot of stories in me about food and wine. I grew up in the industry, went to culinary school, travelled around the world of wine from a young age, met many of the industry’s most iconic figures… all this led me to create my own blog called FKDecanted, My Life’s Journey in Food and Wine. I never thought I’d have the patience to write. I’m not inherently a patient person as those who know me can attest! But with change comes well, change and I’ve learned to be a bit more patient. Writing, I have found is not only cathartic, but is also enjoyable and comes fairly easily to me once I’ve developed the idea.

The second career path has been to create my own Sales & Marketing Consulting Firm for the Wine & Spirits Industry, called WineDistilled. I thought long and hard here; how do I use my experience and create something of my own that is of value to those in the industry. It wasn’t until after I had taken a trip to Argentina for fun that I had a revelation — I not only have the contacts but the valued experience in the Argentine wine world to become a consultant to wineries. But really it wasn’t until I spoke with a dear friend of mine who represents one of the iconic wine brands in Argentina that I realized this would be my new path. It was he that said to me, “take your own assets which are your passion, knowledge and contacts in the Argentine Wine Industry and set out on your own!” Thank you Ramiro, because once I got home I knew that this would be my path. So I pivoted, changed my way of looking for a career and set out to create my own company. Once I set my mind to this direction I did so with a vengeance and created WineDistilled LLC. I traveled, spoke to, met with and it all worked! Pretty soon once was all was in place I landed my first client.

I find it fascinating that so many of my friends, work friends and peers have also found themselves in the same position and all of us around the same age. In fact what strikes me is that so few of my friends have not had a major work life changes. Some have pivoted by choice, and others because they had to do so. Some have gone in totally different directions; and some have stayed closer to home. The common thread has been that once they decided upon a direction they were all in! They took a step forward and pivoted.

I look at what we are faced with today with Covid 19. Pivoting, being nimble, being able to adapt your business strategy, is more important than ever. I am watching my industry the wine & spirits as well as hospitality industry, do this and it’s fascinating to watch. How do such a huge industries with multiple facets change, pivot and find new ways to do business so quickly. Virtual tastings, virtual education, virtual sales calls, social distancing at point of purchase, ready to go cocktails, ready to go wine by the glass. Virtual ordering platforms, and e-commerce had just started to be implemented by our distributors prior to the pandemic, are even more important than ever, Direct to Consumer on-line sales, and so much more – our industry is Pivoting at a rapid pace. We are turning this ship around not slowly, but rapidly and at times into uncharted waters. There is a positive, can do energy and it will makes us even stronger once things have opened up completely. Our industry’s way of doing business will change and become different from what we have been used to all these years. The strong ones who are innovative and ready to not only embrace change but lead the change will come out of this stronger.

As has been my custom here’s a picture of one of my favorite culinary creations from during the lockdown. Cooking has been my joy while home and I’ve become very adept at using what’s in my pantry, freezer and refrigerator. I’ve turned pantry cooking and freezer cooking into mini homecook episodes of Chopped. I look in, assess what’s inside and then create! I had farm tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant, onions and a piece of arctic char and homemade pesto. So I whipped up a Provencal Tian and a pesto coated Arctic Char. Simple, good food that is easy to make and used what I had on hand!

I’m super excited about all the possibilities ahead of me. So many more things I’d like to do with career. So go ahead embrace the future. You have nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain!!! And with both feet, take a step forward and pivot!

Harvest in the Time of Covid 19

Up until now, most of my blogs have been personal, about my life’s journey in food and wine. I’ve been writing about my experiences and hoping you’d find them enlightening and at times entertaining. What I’d like to write about now is more serious than many of my other posts, more timely and more business oriented. We are all living through a very strange and serious time in our lives and it’s affecting us all very differently. For the past 15 years I’ve been working with the Argentine wine world and today I’d like to enlighten you on how Covid 19 has had a direct effect on the harvest.

When most of us think of harvest time we think fall; however it is fall in South American and harvest is well underway, if not almost done in Argentina. Again I’ll mention that I was there only a month ago and harvest was just gearing up. The Mendoza Harvest Festival took place and all seemed normal. The tanks were getting ready, the pickers were starting to pick, the trucks were being loaded with grapes ready to go into the crusher and all seemed well just fine, on track, if not even a bit early. Most wineries luckily finished picking by the end of March, but it was not before the country went into lockdown on March 13 just like we did.

On April 3rd, my colleague, friend and amazing winemaker, Karim Mussi Saffie of Altocedro in La Consulta, Mendoza wrote about how challenging things were. And in his words, ” These last days have been very stressful for us at the winery, dealing with many open fronts at the same time, but moving the fastest possible, keeping calm and managing everything by priorities. We are all healthy, both at home and at the company.” He immediately upon hearing what was going to happen, activated a crisis management committee and decided to manage the situation using the following strategy: Take care of the team in order to keep the operation active and ready for — “the day after.” Most Argentine business owners are pretty well versed in mitigating financial crisis, as you probably know it’s a country that has them often.

Karim Mussi Saffi

So what did he have to do and how did he do it with government mandated self isolation? Since wine is considered food, it was allowed to continue operating. Permission was needed for everything . Everyone who needed to go back and forth from the winery to home needed a permit. Without a permit you could not work outside of the home. They closed their offices and tasting room, however, they were able to keep the bottling line open and fill pending orders. In Karim’s words, “All of the staff at KMW are working under safe conditions in order to reduce the risk of infection and guarantee the quality of our wines. The preventative measures not only comply with the official protocols, but also reduce the risk of infection and have since been adopted as our official practices going forward.” Social distancing was mandatory, 1.5 meters apart for everyone. All of the necessary supplies or what we now call PPE’s are continuously being delivered to protect all staff and everyone receives daily instruction on how to use them. Masks, gloves and protective glasses are mandatory. Everybody was given alcohol based sanitizing sprays to clean the equipment, surfaces, tools, plugs, valves, pumps — basically anything touched. Additional measures include staggering the shifts so that a minimum amount of people are working at any given time again to mitigate the risk of infection.

As of April 3rd, they had harvested about 90% of their grapes from La Consulta. It was a very warm growing season, one of the warmest March months in a long time. Sugar ripeness came early which helped speed up the phenolic ripeness. Harvest was therefore about 2 weeks earlier than normal, for all varietals, including Cabernet, and this is a very good thing all things considered. In fact it is shaping up to be a great vintage, and the quality is amazing; a memorable one in more ways than one. All of Altocedro’s fruit is hand-harvest and getting cash was not easy to pay the workers so that posed another great challenge. Banks were not open, and they don’t “deliver cash” but as I said, Karim found the way to make sure all his workers got paid every Friday.

Harvest time is always a challenge even under perfect conditions, but this year as with everyone and everything, this has been a monumentally challenging time. This harvest will prove to be memorable and , according to Karim, “a beautiful and important activity, one that generates jobs, strong-minded people who persevere, and cannot be stopped no matter what crisis is in front of them.” Karim and his team took the task at hand and did what they do best, as a team, and as a family, so that at the end of the day we can enjoy his amazing wines. I’d like to end with two quotes from Karim, “Imagination is half the disease, tranquility is half of the remedy, and patience is the beginning of the cure” and “Wine is sacred and necessary for a human’s happiness and progress.” From me and Karim and his entire team, we wish you all well, stay home, stay safe and if you can enjoy a glass of wine with each other.