"First," Kevin Zraly explained in that calm way of his, “I’m not retiring.” Forget the headline, “A Heralded Wine Instructor’s Last Class Before Retiring. “Let me tell you what’s going on,” he offered, and so I stopped hyperventilating. Thank goodness! The world’s most famous wine educator, an early advocate of American wines, the guy who nurtured America’s first generation of sommeliers and helped conceive of what is now the Wine Spectator wine experiences, wasn’t putting away his tastevin.
Given what Zraly, 65, has gone through and accomplished, it certainly would be understandable if he wanted to take a breather.
Fifteen years ago this Sunday, September 11, 2001, terrorists destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, killing thousands. Zraly was wine director of the fabled Windows on the World restaurant in the North Tower from its opening in 1976 until its destruction that terrible day. Among the dead were 72 of his colleagues at Windows and its ancillary dining spots on the 106th and 107th floors. John and I, who had met Zraly in the ’70s at Cellar in the Sky, the elegant, 35-seat, wine-centered restaurant in Windows, lost a dear friend, Cathy Chirls, who was working at a financial services firm with offices below Windows.
“I have to let go a little bit of the name, Windows,” Zraly said, explaining, “Windows Wine School will no longer exist after the fall of 2016.” Zraly says he’ll continue to update his book, “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course,” keeping “Windows” in the title. It has sold more than 4 million copies and the 31st edition was just published. At the time of the attacks, Zraly, the father of four, was at his home in New Paltz, N.Y., preparing for his son Anthony’s 10th birthday the next day.
Stepping away from the Windows on the World Wine School, which he founded 40 years ago and through which he taught more than 20,000 students, doesn’t mean he’ll stop teaching about wine, he said. He is a self-taught wine expert, starting at 19. His college degree is in education and it seems to be in his DNA. He has prestigious awards to show for it.
Instead of the Windows classes, which consisted of eight two-hour sessions, at one point four times a year, he will continue teaching master classes through his partnership, begun in 2002, with legendary wine store Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits. He is director of the Sherry-Lehmann/Kevin Zraly Master Classes and Wine Club (begun in 2010) and he has conducted more than 60 master wine classes there in a classroom that he helped designed for 40 students. Zraly told me that he guides the proceedings, giving the floor to some of the world’s most respected winemakers and winery owners — not salespeople -- who pour and discuss at least 10 of their wines.
In terms of more control and less wear and tear on Zraly, who commutes from New Paltz for the many moving parts of his life in wine, this arrangement sounds like a huge plus, economically and logistically. For instance, he won’t have to pay hotel markups for the wine or supplement what he buys with wines from his own cellar. He’ll also be able to use his own pourers, not hotel employees.
It’s a big leap to take, since so much of his life has been entwined with the Windows name. He had resumed teaching the Windows courses at a Marriott on his therapist’s advice about a month after 9/11. He’s most recently taught that class—the last ones are sold out now, with a waiting list-- at the JW Marriot Essex House on Central Park South.
This fall also marks the 45th anniversary of the first wine class he taught, in a continuing education program at Ulster County Community College. When Zraly was 19, John Novi, the owner and chef of the DePuy Canal House in upstate New York, hired him to be the bartender after the New York Times gave it four stars. Zraly was tasked with putting together a wine list. So he flung himself into learning about wine, which meant French wine primarily back then. In 1973, when he was a junior, he persuaded administrators at New Paltz State University to allow him to teach seniors an accredited wine course.
I don’t think any of us can appreciate how, more than most people, Zraly probably believes anything, anything, can happen in a moment that changes your world cataclysmically. The deaths and destruction on 9/11 set off a period of crippling physical and emotional illness for him. Within five years of the 9/11 attacks, Zraly’s youngest child and only daughter, then 4-year-old Adriana, was diagnosed with leukemia. Then, the family’s home burned to the ground on an Easter morning. Five years ago, doctors removed a cancerous tumor from one of Zraly’s legs and that ordeal shredded his marriage, he said. About 18 months ago, he and his wife of 25 years, Ana Fabiano, an expert on Spanish wines, divorced.
When Adriana lost her hair to chemotherapy, Zraly shaved his off. When he told us she liked hats, our daughters, Media and Zoë, found the perfect one for her when we were at Disney World that summer. The Zralys built a new home, and Adriana is now 17 and well. He’s been through a lot, his family has been through a lot, but he sounds excited about the future. “I don’t want to be a has-been. The classes have always sold out—that’s without advertising--and I’ve never missed a class,” he said, “but there are other things I want to do.”
Zraly’s also working on more books, some with Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, known as World Wine Guys, who have taught Windows classes with him. He also plans to hold one-offs, he said, pop-up classes and continue his popular lectures. There’s also the screenplay he wants to finish about Joe Baum, who created Windows, The Four Seasons, and The Rainbow Room restaurants.
Baum was looking for an American with wine knowledge when he hired the 25-year-old Zraly in 1976. At the time, Zraly was selling wine and had come to him to try to make a sale. By the time he was hired, he said, he’d logged in 10,000 hours educating himself about wine. Baum, Zraly told me, insisted on the term “cellar master,” instead of the French “sommelier,” which he considered pretentious. When Windows was destroyed, it had the highest volume of wine sales in America, he said.
So with the impending closing of the Windows wine school, I thought it a good time to look at his impact on America’s wine culture. He was an early champion of American wines, here and abroad. When Hilton International operated Windows on the World, Zraly traveled the world to the company’s properties and saw to it that American wines did, too.
“Hilton International was the first hotel chain to create an American wine program outside of the United States,” he told me. “I literally placed Robert Mondavi’s hand into the hand of Chuck Bell, Hilton International’s president. I helped get American wines into hotels and restaurants in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and other countries. And because Robert Mondavi was the man that he was, it wasn’t just about his wines, but the wines of California. And of course, after our success, all the other major hotel chains followed.”
Although he gives Baum credit for the next couple policies I’ll mention, Zraly at the very least embraced them with verve. He hired and promoted women and he trained his people to ask who would like to see the wine list, not automatically giving it to a male guest. Baum studied at Cornell and insisted that Windows employ the “Cornell method” of pricing wines, which was “double what you paid for it and add $1,” Zraly said. This made wines so affordable, “outrageous prices,” Zraly recalled fondly.
Zraly does take credit for inventing the use of progressive markups on wine in restaurants, charging a higher markup for less expensive wines and a lower markup for more expensive wines. “If I buy a wine for $100, I’ll charge $125,” he said. “If I buy a wine for $50, I’ll charge $75.”
Baum told him to put together the best wine list in America and to ignore what it cost. Because the economies of the U.S. and France were suffering back then, he was able to buy amazing French wines. “I wanted wines from all over the world, so there were some from Yugoslavia, but French wines dominated the list. I tried to reverse that slowly, to have more wines from America than France, but it happened quickly. The Bicentennial helped,” he said, as did probably the Judgment of Paris, which created tremendous interest in the fledgling wine industry in California when two wines from Napa bested the best from France in a French-judged blind tasting.
“We always had Dr. Frank’s wines [Dr. Konstantin Frank from the Finger Lakes region of New York] and some from California, but we started adding Oregon and Washington wines. Within five years we went from 75 percent French to 75 percent American wines.”
Unlike today, when even casual places have sommeliers, in 1976, Zraly said, there were only two sommeliers in New York City, him and Renzo Rapacioli. Rapacioli, 72, and now nearing his sixth decade as a sommelier, is at Barbetta restaurant.
More than 100 wine lovers who learned from Zraly as cellar rats, captains, cellar masters and yep, later sommeliers, at Windows, fanned out into the world, populating every corner of the industry. People like Andrea Immer Robinson (andreawine.com), a master sommelier and the first woman named “Best Sommelier in the United States” by the Sommelier Society of America; Catherine Fallis, the fifth woman in the world to become a Master Sommelier (planetgrape.com); Michael Skurnik, of Skurnik Wines, an importer and distributor (skurnik.com ); Winnie Burwell, wine consultant, (winewinnie.com); Jan Petrow, a senior vice president at importer-distributor Vineyard Brands (vineyardbrands.com ); Jay Wolmer of Terroir Selections Florida, an importer and distributor of boutique wines (rarechampagnesandwines.com); and Ralph Hersom, who was Wine Director of Le Cirque 2000 from1997 to 2005 and is now managing beer, wine, and spirits for the Hannaford supermarket chain in the Northeast.
Graduates of the Windows wine school have gone far, too. One of them, Laura Maniec, in 2009, at the age of 29, became the youngest female to be certified a master sommelier. She is co-owner of Corkbuzz restaurants and wine bars, which devote a lot of energy to wine education (corkbuzz.com).
In 2003, John and I celebrated Open that Bottle Night at Le Cirque with Zraly, and his then-wife, Fabiano; and Andrea Immer and her guest, Cynthia Renzi, from the French Culinary Institute in New York. Hersom allowed us to bring our own wines and looked after us. All of the wines were amazing but Zraly’s was the most stunning for its memories. It was a 1966 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, bought for the original wine cellar of Windows when it first opened. The late Alan Lewis, Windows’s general manager who befriended us our first time at Cellar, had given Zraly the bottle after the first bombing of the Twin Towers in 1993.” It was probably a bit past its prime, but still lovely and full of fruit,” we wrote in our notes. “We compared it to dried roses.”
For this article, I reached out first to Andrea Immer Robinson, who, while an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, first volunteered as a pourer at the wine school at night “so I could take the class for free,” she said.
“I remember him teaching us to present and serve every wine like it was 1976 Château d'Yquem (which we carried on inventory for $17/375 ml because he had purchased it and many other collectibles at the Heublein wine auctions of the late 70s/early 80s).
‘“If table 72 wants their Pinot Grigio decanted, you decant it--joyfully. You are a part of a very personal, and possibly very important, moment for every guest. That’s a huge deal. They chose us,”’ she recalled he would say. “He wanted wine prices to be a reward for people having chosen us, and ridden a-quarter mile in an elevator, too. Wine was part of Windows' DNA, and he wanted every person on the team on-board, so we had banquet setup, reservations sales, washroom attendants, accounting, everyone--sitting in on and working the classes and staff training tastings.”
“I worked at Windows in 1980 and 1981 as a wine steward,” Petrow wrote. “I always loved Kevin's philosophy regarding wine lists -- it was very democratic and the list at Windows and his classes reflected that: Introduce wines from around the world, be adventurous, but also list known brands to give guests a sense of comfort in case they might feel intimidated by asking for the sommelier.
“As a woman, I was given an unprecedented opportunity by Kevin: A tuxedo was made for me and I was sent out on the floor to work as a sommelier, in addition to doing the staff wine classes. In 1981 this was a bold move -- there were no women working on the floor as somms in New York: another crack in that glass ceiling.”
Michael Skurnik was among several people employed in other jobs at Windows, in his case waiting tables, who took pay cuts to work in the 50,000-bottle cellar because they could see an amazing future in wine.
“I saw my calling in the cellar, I guess you could say, and Kevin was all too eager to take on a low paid, minimum wage, hard working, 65 hour/week employee, to teach, and be his assistant,” Skurnik, who founded his company in 1987, wrote me in an email. His brother, Harmon, and their friend, Tom Lynch, also worked at Windows. Now Harmon is a partner at Skurnik and Lynch is an account specialist there.
“I stocked the cellar, along with my other more mundane daily routines, and to my amazement, Kevin made it possible for me to practically taste every single bottle in that famously deep, deep cellar,” Michael Skurnik recalled. “All the Bordeaux vintages were procured by Kevin through Alexis Lichine personally so all were in perfect pristine cellar-aged conditions, as were all the other wines from around the world. A truly once in a lifetime experience for me.”
“They trained us for a period of months before the restaurant opened in 1976,” Jay Wolmer recalled. “ If you worked in the dining room, you were required to sell a bottle of wine to every table. They watched you.
“I think the master sommelier thing is good. It’s an interesting thing, except guys like Kevin and I are more home-grown, rudimentary. We’re good with people at the table, finding out in a busy restaurant in a short time the right wine for people,” Wolmer said. “I don’t know that a lot of young sommeliers know how to interview people in a busy restaurant setting. We weren’t so technical at the table, not so overblown. People trusted us and liked us and we didn’t have much of an ego.
“But now there are so many different wines and grape varieties and things being offered now. Some in the current generation of sommeliers are trying to outdo each other and be more esoteric. Many are knowledgeable and have experience. It’s a passion, it’s connective, it’s individual.
Kevin wants people to experience and taste wines on their own terms but give them the background to legitimize how they feel about wine and relate to wine. He’s at the top of the wine game. I try to emulate him when I teach.”
Fallis sent an excerpt from something she’s writing about Zraly. “I learned how to run a wine class for twenty, or for 200, up to Kevin’s exacting standards—he would walk through the classroom before we opened the doors and if a single tablecloth was out of alignment, if a chair was an inch off the mark, if a drop of wine was spilled, or a glass rack still visible, we would have to fix it before the public came through those doors.”
Harriet Lembeck’s Wine & Spirits Program in downtown Manhattan was started in 1940 by the late Harold J. Grossman and taken over by her in 1975. She and her husband, Bill, an engineer who calculated the number of bubbles in a bottle of Champagne at 49 million, met Zraly when they were all students at Grossman’s class at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. At the time, it was taught by Professor Henry Barbour, who went on to be the President of the Culinary Institute of America, she wrote me. (harrietlembeckswineprogram.com)
Zraly “is very engaging and friendly, and his students have fun while learning,” she wrote.
Robin Kelly O’Connor, a longtime Bordeaux expert and wine educator, told me he traveled the world with Zraly, 25 countries, 80 wine regions, 500 appellations and tasted 7,500 wines, for the 25th anniversary edition of the Windows book. Before that, when O’Connor took over the Bordeaux Wine Bureau in 1989, charged with creating an education program for American distributors, importers and wholesalers and later stores and restaurants, he needed, he said, “ a high-profile speaker.”
So, O’Connor said, “I wrote the materials and Kevin did the delivery in 85 cities and around Canada for years. He taught me public speaking. No matter the size, the audience, the country, you can do it. You can get up in front of them and do it. He made me the educator I am today.” (rkovine.com)
Zraly also takes justifiable pride in having helped create what he calls “the best wine event in the world,” Wine Spectator’s New York City Wine Experience, now in its 36th year, and its sister event, the California Wine Experience. Zraly told me that he had enjoyed the Monterey Wine Festival in California and around 1980, shared with Marvin Shanken (M. Shanken Communications) the idea of such a festival in Manhattan. Shanken, whose now famous publication Wine Spectator was in its infancy, said he’d like to be part of it, Zraly told me.
Because Zraly had taught at Cornell and was on the board at the Culinary Institute of America, he urged that the event be incorporated as a charitable organization, giving money to those institutions for wine education. Thus, the events in New York City and San Francisco are sponsored by the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation. The first one was held at Windows on March 21, 1981 and was called “The First Annual Grand Awards Wine Seminar,” a one-day affair, with maybe 100 people. How they have grown!
For 10 years, “I got the wine, I arranged the speakers, I designed the floor plan. I put together 25-page manuals of what’s going to happen on this hour and this day,” Zraly said. “But I don’t know if it would be as successful as it is, I don’t know, if it hadn’t been for Marvin’s chutzpah.” When it began drawing 1,200 people, Zraly said he decided “enough is enough.” The master classes are a condensed version of the wine experiences, he said. “They’re my speed,” with 40 participants.
“We began collaborating on the very early wine experiences where he was the first event master of ceremonies,” Shanken wrote to me in an email about Zraly. “He played a major role in its early development. Later on he moved into new directions with his career. He remains a guiding light in the wine sky.”
Zraly is also grateful. “I had 15 more years of teaching the wine school since September 11,” he told me. “I’m blessed that people supported and helped me.”
Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times as well as at The Journal.