Friday, September 25, 2009

Ben Feder, Clinton Vineyards Owner, Hudson Valley, Passes Away

I was having lunch just a week or two ago with the highly renowned literary agent Robert Lescher. Bob represents people like Calvin Trillin, Robert M. Parker Jr., Matt Kramer, MFK Fisher, and many, many others.

He and I were talking about food and wine. The conversation always seems to end up there when we get together. He was reminiscing about the days when he would come up to Dutchess County, and spend time with friends, and visit his friend Ben Feder at Clinton Vineyards.

I was perplexed. What would Robert Lescher and Bed Feder possibly have in common? As Bob told me, my eyes widened. I had only known Ben Feder as the grand Old Man of the Hudson Valley wine world. As a fellow farmer and winemaker I was a fan of Ben’s and his was one of the wineries that convinced me that I too should take a chance, and work the valuable and generous soils of this lush valley.

Bob explained that for more than two decades Ben and his design group had been one of the most sought after firms in publishing for every big book of the 1950s and 1960s. Editors signaled to their sale force that books were important because the brass had put in for Feder and his team to take the book, design wise, to the next level. His involvement in a project signaled the book’s importance to the company. To some extent, I thought to myself, as only a young man can, Ben Feder was the Chip Kidd of his day. And then after some thinking, it is in fact the reverse, is it not?

Ben Feder was a boy from the Bronx who attended DeWitt Clinton. Ben’s father was a cellist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. Ben graduated from the Parsons School of Design and studied painting in Paris and Venice. Ben became a highly prized graphic artist and book designer, whose work was highly sought out. He became the president of Countrywide Properties, a real-estate development and management company in New York. His first two marriages ended in divorce.

Ben Feder moved came to the Hudson Valley in 1969, the same year as Woodstock, and purchased a rundown 100-acre dairy farm. He was in his mid-to-late 40s. Ben and the cows didn’t seem to get along.

“At the time, though, he lived in New York City where he worked as a graphic designer, spending only weekends at his Clinton Corners home. When a local farmer offered to care for the property in exchange for his pasturing his 36 head of Angus, Feder agreed. Later, Feder acquired the herd as pay-back for a debt owed him by the farmer,” wrote Bonnie Langston in the Daily Freeman in 2008.

“Suddenly, this boy from the Bronx had 36 Black Angus cattle,” Ben said. “To make it short, they didn’t really care for me, and I didn’t care for them.”

“Intrigued by making wine, Ben sought advice from fellow winemaker Herman Wiemer who made wine for Walter S. Taylor at the Bully Hill Vineyard and then went off to make his own prize winning Riesling in the Finger Lakes. Advice to Ben was to grow Seyval Blanc, a French-American hybrid grape that does well in the harsh climate of the Northeast. The cows left their pasture and grapes were planted. Ben’s first vintage was in 1977, the year after Gov. Hugh L. Carey put through a farm winery bill permitting small wineries to sell direct to customers, retailers and restaurants,” wrote Langston. Ben was one of the new, young wave of winemakers, the first farm winery crowd, along with several others.

In June of 1989, at Radio City Suite at the Rainbow Room, Phyllis Rich Flood and Ben Feder were married. The ceremony was performed by Rabbi Robert E. Goldburg. Both were divorcees, the two remained wed for 30 years.
"Ben was a pioneer and visionary in the Hudson Valley wine industry and will be terribly missed. My deepest sympathy to Phyllis and the family." said Michael Migliore, of the Hudson Valley Wine & Grape Association.

I recently saw Ben Feder at the Hudson Valley awards dinner, as we all did, where he was awarded a Life Time Achievement Award for his work in winemaking in the Hudson Valley. He was a pioneer. I did not know him well, but I wanted to say something that was true, that was meaningful, and I think I did.

I am in the Hudson Valley because of Ben Feder. Because of what he accomplished. He established a working vineyard farm n the valley, and he made good wine. And because of what he accomplished, he made it a little easier for the next wave of us.

Thank you Ben Feder.