PictureAlan Abrams. Photo by Gary Ferber.

Alan Abrams, a longtime Mill Valley resident whose heralded career included stints as an advertising executive, wine industry entrepreneur and as a dedicated community and Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center leader, died September 12 after a battle with cancer. He was 70.

His wife, Michela O’Connor Abrams, the longtime CEO of Dwell, has invited family, friends and those who worked with Alan to join her and her daughter Taylor at a funeral mass on Saturday, September 17 at 2 pm at St. Hilary’s Catholic Church in Tiburon.

“Alan was a warrior to the end,” O’Connor Abrams says. “He endured so much over the past year, from surgeries to treatment to dashed hopes, all without an iota of change in his positive, humorous self. He was never delusional but he was not going to give up hope right to the end.”

Abrams was a longtime board member of the Mill Valley Chamber and served on a number of local leadership committees over the years, including the City of Mill Valley’s Business Advisory Board, the group created in 2009 “to advise the City Council on economic development and business issues.” The BAB, as it was widely known, advocated on behalf of businesses at City Hall and led an overhaul of the Chamber of Commerce. Abrams was also a key member of the City’s Traffic and Congestion Reduction Advisory Task Force and the Miller Avenue Streetscape Committee.

PictureBoard members and friends of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, including Alan Abrams, far right, at the 2015 Mill Valley Wine, Beer & Gourmet Food Tasting. Photo by Gary Ferber.

“Alan was instrumental in helping to revitalize the Chamber of Commerce six years ago, and served as the first Board Chair in the transition,” says Chamber Board Chair Ann Aversa, whose family owns La Ginestra Restaurant. “He had a wonderful, funny, charming personality, and became a dear friend to me over the years. I will miss him, and the Chamber and the larger business community will as well.”

“Alan played a critical role in a number of important City committees over the years, and he always brought sharp analysis, critical thinking and a fantastic sense of humor to all that he did here in the community,” City Manager Jim McCann adds. “He was one of a kind and he will be greatly missed, and we wish his family well at this difficult time.”

Alan Abrams was born on January 31, 1946 in Dallas, Texas, the only child of Elmer and Maxine Abrams. Elmer founded the Jones, Brown & Abrams dry goods business and sold it “right before there was no need for dry goods anymore,” O’Connor Abrams says. The younger Abrams clearly got his sense of humor from his father. Elmer proposed to Maxine on a bank deposit slip of the bank where she worked, and Alan later proposed to Michela using a cartoon from The New Yorker.

“He was the center of their universe,” O’Connor Abrams says of Alan’s parents. “He always said they lived that ‘Leave It to Beaver’ existence.”

Abrams earned his B.S. in finance at Southern Methodist University, and then served a stint as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, specializing in air traffic control in Japan. He went on to get his master’s degree in marketing at the Wharton School of Business.

Alan Abrams and Michela O’Connor first met in September 1987 when a pair of couples invited them separately to a dinner party in Ross – a surprise setup that neither of them were seeking, Abrams says. “But they didn’t give us a choice,” she says.

PictureAlan Abrams and Michela O’Connor Abrams. Courtesy image.

Humor trumped the annoyance of some unwanted match-making, however. Michela had been asked to bring a main course, and prepared ravioli in pesto sauce. When Alan arrived, he took a glance at the ravioli, then over to the three dogs in the house and deadpanned, “Oh, is that the dog food?”

“I looked at him and said, ‘You did NOT just say that,’” Michela says. “But it was exactly that humor that completely intrigued me about Alan from the beginning.”

The evening continued with a game of Pictionary. “We beat the pants off all of them,” O’Connor Abrams said with a laugh.

At the time, O’Connor was a regional sales manager for PC World magazine, and Abrams was a advertising brand manager for Grey Advertising with a specialty in the beverage business. One month after the unexpected setup, on their first official date, the waitress at a Japanese restaurant in Embarcadero 1 asked Alan for his order and he replied, “I’ll have the nachos.”

“I’m hiding my head behind the menu, the waitress is looking at him with three heads and says, ‘We don’t have nachos here,” O’Connor Abrams says. “Alan replies, ‘Of course you don’t.’ He was just so clearly a character. I wasn’t really looking for a relationship at that time, but I knew he was going to be a fun person to hang out with. I just found him so interesting and intelligent without anything egotistical or any hubris. And the rest is history.”

The couple got married in October 1989, two years to the day of their first date. They continued to live in San Francisco until moving to Mill Valley – in the home they’ve stayed at ever since – in November 1995.

In 2001, as O’Connor Abrams was brokering the sale of Business 2.0 magazine to Time Warner, Abrams was considering his next chapter. He’d spent years in the advertising and beverage business, with roles such as senior brand manager at Hiram Walker focusing on Canadian Club and nine other spirits brands. At BBDO Advertising, Abrams oversaw the Almaden Vineyards account, and later handled advertising for some of the best-known wine brands in the world, including Mumm Champagne, Mumm Napa Valley, Charles Krug, Sterling Vineyards, B&G French wines and more.

O’Connor Abrams urged him to consider leveraging his years of experience and expertise to do something on his own. “His love of wine and his depth of knowledge of the business and the brands was incredible,” she says. “Unlike most of us who learn enough to make us dangerous, he approached it like he was getting his masters in it.”

PicturePhil Garratt and Alan Abrams work the bar at the Mill Valley Chamber’s 2015 Holiday Party at the Outdoor Art Club. Photo by Gary Ferber.

Abrams had hosted informal wine tastings and auctions over the years, often to help raise money for friends battling illness or later for Marin Horizon School, where their daughter Taylor attended. But after he went to UC-Davis to become a certified wine educator, and then got his sales license through the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Abrams got into the corporate wine tasting world.

It took off.

“It’s a great way to kick off a board meeting,” O’Connor Abrams says with a laugh.

In 1997, Abrams designed the family wine cellar, doing so with such meticulous detail that even his wife was amazed. “He was always so self effacing that he didn’t think of himself as an expert, but when people would visit and see the cellar, they’d look at him and say, ‘You did this’? You should be doing more of this,” O’Connor Abrams says.

Abrams added wine cellar design to the tastings, consulting and wine education parts of the business under his Alan’s Wine Cellar umbrella. BusinessWeek profiled one of his creations, a cellar made entirely of stainless steel dowels. And the wine auction-fueled fundraising continued for myriad local events supporting Marin Horizon, St. Ignatius Preparatory School and the Mill Valley Chamber. Just a week before he passed away, St. Ignatius announced the creation of the Alan A. Abrams Scholarship Fund to benefit kids who are unable to afford tuition, which will be established via the proceeds from this year’s wine auction.

“He always used his business to help everybody else,” O’Connor Abrams says.

In August 1987, Michela O’Connor joined a friend who was going through a tough time on a “journal-writing weekend.” She recalls being told to write down whatever came to her mind, and then scribbling, “I want to meet someone who can wear a pair of 501s and bring a six-pack and then go to the symphony and know exactly the piece their playing and who the composer is.”

One month later, she met Alan Abrams. “I’d found him,” she says.

Flash forward nearly three decades, as the couple lay in bed last Friday night, with Michela reading and Alan quietly nearing the end of his battle with cancer, O’Connor Abrams gave him a verbal nudge.

On queue, Abrams perked up and leaned toward his wife, two fingers extended like he was going to poke her in the eyes.
“During the hardest times, he’s still making jokes,” she says. “He was never going to be overly sober about all of this.”

A funeral mass will be held for Alan Abrams on Saturday, September 17 at 2 pm at St. Hilary’s Catholic Church in Tiburon. In lieu of flowers, the family is accepting donations to the Alan A. Abrams Scholarship Fund for Saint Ignatius. Go here to donate.

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