The accidental wine educator
By Eric Asimov
The history of wine in the United States owes a lot to something of a happy accident.
In 1970, Craig Claiborne, then the restaurant critic of The New York Times, was driving from upstate New York back to the city when he stopped at Depuy Canal House Tavern, a restaurant in High Falls, New York, in the Hudson Valley.
He was so impressed with the place that he awarded it four stars, his highest rating, rarely bestowed and almost never outside New York City. The review appeared March 6, 1970, under the immortal headline “Restaurant Merits Three-Hour Drive.”
Business exploded. Suddenly, city dwellers arrived, some asking for something called “the wine list.” It fell upon Kevin Zraly, a 19-year-old waiter who had been assigned bartending duty, to respond to one particularly insistent man.
“ ‘Sir, we have red, white and rosé,’ ” Zraly recalled saying. “ ‘What else do you need to know?’ ”
So began the storied career of the man who has probably taught more Americans about wine than anybody. When the frustrated customer got home, Zraly said in a phone interview, he sent the restaurant a copy of “The Penguin Book of Wines,” a leading textbook of the time, which opened Zraly’s eyes to what could be known about wine.
For 50 years now, Zraly, 70, has helped Americans make sense of wine. Not only has he educated countless consumers, but he has instructed some of the most influential American wine professionals, who went on to teach multitudes themselves.
Though wine is often considered a forbidding, staid subject, Zraly made his classes fun, injecting them with humor and energy. He turned them into entertainment.
“He was a natural educator, bouncing all over the place like the Energizer bunny, but very knowledgeable and accessible,” said Joseph DeLissio, who took a wine course with Zraly in 1977 and spent the next 43 years as wine director of the River Café in Brooklyn.
Zraly most famously ran the wine program at Windows on the World, the celebrated restaurant atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center, from its inception in 1975 until it was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.
At Windows, he built the wine list into one of the best in the country, while his easygoing, hospitable style came to be a model for a generation of American sommeliers. He mentored many who wanted to enter the wine trade, particularly women, at a time when wine was regarded largely as a male bastion.
“He was instrumental in giving people the opportunity to show they had the chops, and making sure they had the opportunity to gain them,” said Andrea Immer Robinson, who followed in Zraly’s footsteps at Windows and went on to become a leading wine educator. “When you have somebody modeling the right behavior, it’s so easy.”
Zraly also taught wine courses at Windows, starting with the staff and eventually opening them to the public. Based on those classes, he wrote a book, “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course.” Through numerous editions since 1985, it has sold more than 3 million copies, almost certainly the bestselling wine book written by an American.
Anniversaries occur almost every day in the wine business, whether a California startup’s 10th vintage or a Bordeaux producer’s 200th. They are rarely worth acknowledging. But because of his influence and how the world has changed, it’s worth looking back for a moment at Zraly’s 50 years, which paralleled a revolution in America’s food-and-wine culture.
Back when Claiborne walked into the Depuy Canal House Tavern, the country mostly considered American food to mean hamburgers and convenience foods like TV dinners and instant coffee.
Zraly was like that, too. Growing up in Pleasantville, New York, in Westchester County, he said, “I was steak, potatoes and beer.”
“Fancy food” was a synonym for French cuisine, which many Americans regarded with fear and suspicion. Wine was either for wealthy sophisticates or for Skid Row. Flavored, fortified wines like Thunderbird and Wild Irish Rose were bestsellers.
At the same time, Zraly and the country were embarking on crash courses in the wider world of food and wine.
By October 1971, Zraly, now 20, was teaching his first wine course, on the fundamentals of cheeses and wines, with the help of John Novi, the chef and owner of Depuy Canal House Tavern. Students paid a registration fee of $16.44, with an additional $3 per class for supplies.
Zraly soon became fanatical about learning directly from the source. He visited New York’s wine-growing areas first, then hitchhiked to California to see its budding vineyards. Finally, he traveled to all the great wine regions in Europe, visiting producers, seeing their methods firsthand and keeping assiduous notes.
He parlayed his interest into a job with a New York distributor, selling wine to merchants and restaurants far more interested in buying spirits. His sales route took him to Windows, still under construction, where his persistence in trying to get an appointment earned him a rebuke: “What do you know about wine, anyway?”
He knew so much that Joseph Baum, the restaurant entrepreneur who was conceptualizing Windows, hired him.
“ ‘I want you to create the biggest and best wine list New York has ever seen, and it doesn’t matter how much it costs,’ ” Zraly recalled being told by Baum. “ ‘This is Windows on the World, and I want wine from all over the world.’ ”
He was given the title “cellarmaster,” he said, because Baum didn’t believe “sommelier” fit in an American restaurant.
That any American restaurant would have a cellarmaster or a sommelier was a rare thing in those days. In 1978, Frank J. Prial, the wine columnist for The Times, wrote an article about the virtual disappearance of the sommelier in restaurants, citing Zraly as one of a very few good young ones in New York, “the knowledgeable type, not the wine hustlers,” he specified.
With an apparently unlimited budget, Zraly put together a world-class list, taking advantage of an economic downturn in Europe to buy up great wines at paltry prices. He was also an early investor in wines from California.
Baum gave him money to build a list, but that was it. With the restaurant filling the 106th and 107th floors, Zraly expected to have help.
“I asked him, ‘How many sommeliers am I going to have?’” Zraly said. “‘None, you’re it,’” was the response. “How am I going to do this? It’s an acre in size, and another acre on the 106th. So I created the classes to train the staff — busboys, waiters, dishwashers, secretaries.”
One of those on staff was Michael Skurnik, a would-be musician who got a job waiting tables at Windows in 1977. Arriving there already with an interest in wine, he became friendly with Zraly and eventually became his assistant, maintaining the cellar, doing inventory and moving lots of boxes between the 107th floor and the underground storage cellar.
“He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could do with my life,” said Skurnik, who is now chief executive of Skurnik Wines, a leading New York importer and distributor. “Watching him be successful in his 20s at the top of the world made me realize that anything was possible.”
If good wine lists and sommeliers are now expected at serious restaurants, it’s in no small part because of Zraly.
“Kevin is the one that made it easy for restaurants to see the benefit of having people dedicated to wine and wine service,” DeLissio said. “A lot of seeds were planted with Kevin and Windows, important seeds.”
Robinson, the wine educator, was working on Wall Street at Morgan Stanley when she found herself more interested in wine than finances. She volunteered to pour wine for Zraly’s classes. When he saw she was serious about learning, he had some advice.
“He said, ‘Stick with the money, kid,’” Robinson recalled. “‘But if you really want to learn, you need to go to Europe.’”
With contacts supplied by Zraly, she spent months there before returning in 1990 to become his wine school coordinator. Just a month before the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, she became the first female cellarmaster at Windows, putting his teachings into practice.
“Everybody deserved to feel doted on and cared about,” she said he told her. “If Table 17 wants their pinot grigio decanted like they saw Table 45 with Bordeaux, you do it, and you do it with care and aplomb and delight.”
While Zraly helped build a thriving network of sommeliers, thousands of ordinary people who took his classes — to become wine-buying customers in restaurants and shops — were the primary beneficiaries. He says his students at first were not that interested in wine. They were more interested in learning how not to feel embarrassed.
“They want to learn how to order wine in a restaurant,” he said. “They want to learn to walk into a retail store with confidence. They don’t want to learn everything, it’s too overwhelming. They just want to learn something.”
He developed his entertaining style out of self-defense. “I knew nothing about wine when I started,” he said, “so I became an entertainer, to fend off questions.”
Over the course of a class, students might be served 10 glasses of wine. “People would never talk until the third glass, and they wouldn’t shut up,” he said. “At a certain point it’s no longer a class, it’s crowd control.”
When Zraly started teaching, he said, his classes were 90% men. By 2001, they were 60% women. Sadly, he said, his students are still overwhelmingly white.
Since Sept. 11, Zraly has taken his act on the road. He has taught the course in hotels, on cruise ships, at wine shops, to corporate clients, to pretty much anybody willing to pay what most recently was $1,200 for the eight-week introductory course.
Then came the pandemic, and Zraly was stuck at home. He thought his career was over, but like so many other people, he discovered something new: Zoom.
Partnering with the retail website Wine.com, he took his classes to the internet. In the year since he began, he estimates he has taught about 4,000 students from 40 states and Canada, the areas where Wine.com sells wine. He sees Zoom now as his future.
“What a great way to end a career,” he said, “by starting a new one.”