November 09, 2017

Benjamin Hammerschlag, 1971 to 2017: a tribute to my son

Benjamin George, this sensitive, intuitive child became the inventive man who created Epicurean Wines, its CEO, winemaker and importer whose wines are sold and cherished all over the world. His continent, Australia, he chose for a third grade project at the Barrie Day School: He chose his future early for that is where his vineyard Imprimata stands today and produces remarkable wines: Robert Parker in 2005 named him wine personality of the year and honored his wines until the day Parker retired. Here’s what he said, “For a young man (early thirties), Hammerschlag has put together a remarkable portfolio of artisinal/hand-crafted Australian wines, primarily from the Barossa and McLaren Vale. He has a degree of enthusiasm, talent, and above all, wisdom, that belies his youthful age. We should all be thankful for the diverse group of wines that are now available in the United States because of the work of Ben Hammerschlag.”  Food and Wine Magazine named him best under 35 of wine makers and chefs and Jay Macinerney highlighted his work in A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine in 2006 and again in The Juice: Venous Veritas in 2012 and his article solely about Ben for House and Garden magazine and in his Wall Street Journal wine column —and they became friends. He would send Macinerney Old Bastard, yep that’s the name of this biggy, as a gift, a wine made by Reid Bosward of Kaesler winery, a brilliant winemaker who earned recognition as one of the Wine Advocate’s personalities of the year. He brought Bosward’s and Ben Glaetzer’s Amon Ra and many other Australian winemakers whose wines knew only that continent from Ben’s early grade school project until he visited Australia after working some five years in the wine department of the Bellingham Grocery store where the butcher got his growing profits, but where he was named "The Wine King of Seattle"—and then off he went to Oz to discover and impress winemakers and then to import, starting with only one shipping container of wine that he managed to get Robert Parker to taste. Perhaps his most famous wine that he developed and blended with the gift of his palate is Woop Woop that The New York Times named best taste and best value and that still sells for around 14 bucks and drinks like a 40-dollar fine Shiraz. And most recently, his own vineyards produce the marvelous Imprimata Grenache and Imprimata Proprietary Red and the Flegenheimer Bros that honors his great-great grandfather on his father’s side who, we learned long after Ben had forged his way, had married a young girl by the name of Flegenheimer and joined her family’s business: The Flegenheimers were New York Wine Merchants and that casts back to Ben’s years at the Pleasant Peasant Restaurant as he named one in this collection: Paisant Red. 

My memory casts me back to the young boy who in 4th grade at Garrett park elementary school won the creative writing contest with “Cuddles the Clever Chipmunk” the same year his sister’s story “My Hippopotamus” won for the kindergarten/second grade category. They were together writing plays long before that: I’ll never forget “There’s a fly in my soup.”  At age 13 Ben put on his shirt and tie and got himself a job cleaning toilets at Jerry’s Sub Shop but soon he was cooking at the grill. From there he went to the Pleasant Peasant Restaurant where he was in charge of the dessert bar in Washington’s tony Friendship Heights. I began referring to him as the Soviet Union, not because he was a communist—far from it but because he had a five-year plan: The man with the plan.

By age 15 he had enough money in the bank to buy a used Porsche that he and Del researched until at age 16 he could drive it home. Rumors at Bethesda Chevy Chase HS were drug dealer when in fact he was the man with the plan. His love of cars and his high-speed driving go with him in this passing.

The drive and invention that underlie this tale landed him in Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration where he’s been invited back to talk to students about his journey and theirs as potential inventors of a future unknown and to be discovered. Invention was the name of his game. And he flourished as a businessman and farmer, who one year saved his crop and one female winemaker’s crop while other male winemakers thought, What does this American city boy know about soil samples? Ignored his advice and lost their crop that year. Del’s father, a successful Iowa farmer never stopped telling that story.

But let us remember that the world of business doesn’t cherish the sensitive heart. And that the sensitivity that marked his genius marked his pain. The cutthroat armor he had to don in that world took its toll on that vulnerable heart that I hold in my heart. Look at his eyes in this photo that I brought today and you will see what I mean. I salute you today, my love, for the honor and loyalty to all who worked with or for you and the hope you carried like a banner that waves and that shall live on. Though we mourn today that your life is cut short, we shall not forget what you forged with open and vulnerable heart.

Here I pause for his sister Sarah Hammerschlag’s eulogy:

When Ben and I were children he had a butterfly net. Our neighborhood was under construction. Everywhere was mud and sheetrock and machinery but up the road was a field of milkweed and thistle and together we caught monarchs and swallowtails. We kept their beautiful bodies in cookie tins.

I followed him everywhere in those years. Everything he did I wanted to do. Everything he played I wanted to play.

He taught me the names of birds and how to kill ants with Windex.

In the afternoon when my mom was at work, we made steak sandwiches and played Monopoly. He always won because he put hotels on Park Place.

There were summers when we stayed up too late. In the quiet house long after midnight, we lay in bed together, watched his black and white TV and ate gummy bears.

He taught me to catch crabs with chicken necks. He loved clams so I loved clams. He loved chilis so I loved chilis, the hotter the better.

When we were older I watched from afar as he made his life like a master craftsman out of keen taste and exacting standards. Cultivating and choosing with a singularity of purpose that was his stamp on the world.

Even when he was mean, which often he was, his eyes were full of sadness and love and heartache.

Sometimes he didn’t call for months and then out of nowhere sent a mixtape so that I could learn to love Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, and A Tribe Called Quest.

When my daughter was just a baby, he played her the Jackson Five and Prince. Although the music was too loud, he held her tiny hands and they danced.

I came to see him just a few days ago. He showed me his beautiful kittens. We watched them climb and tumble. We took a walk behind the house, the path covered in wet yellow leaves the size of dinner plates. He asked to hold my hand when he went up and down the stairs. We drank ginger beer together and listened to Neil Young. He put his arms around me and I told him I loved him but I knew it was both too much and not nearly enough. Though we didn’t talk about it, I know we both remembered those summer days out in the fields beyond the house with his net.

In the end, my brother was a butterfly catcher. He went after beauty with his whole heart and sometimes with a hammer.

The Branch and the Butterfly by Zaara: Kittenchops.com

And I close:

AE Houseman in “To an Athlete Dying Young” opens with this stanza:

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

And so we do today, borne on the shoulders of those who love you, and we set you to rest to the last song we listened to together just before you passed, your favorite Neil Young’s “Change Your Mind” from his album Sleeping with Angels, and where you shall lie, my son.