Kevin Zraly: A Window Into Forty Years of Wine

In this interview, Kevin Zraly looks back on 40 years of Windows on the World Wine School, educating more than 20,000 wine lovers, and what's next for him.

After 40 years of running the Windows on the World Wine School, educating more than 20,000 wine lovers with his full-tilt, engaging style, Kevin Zraly has wrapped up his final semester. But the self-taught wine educator, author and consultant is far from retirement. He will teach a series of wine master classes, lecture at corporate events and is working on a book about red wine, a memoir and a screenplay. Here, he looks back at four incredible decades.

Why is this the right time to end the Wine School?

I’m a spiritual person. I meditate, and the numbers just hit me in the summer—it’s been 45 years since I taught my first wine class. Windows on the World opened 40 years ago. September 11 happened 15 years ago [until 9/11, his course was held on one of the top floors of One World Trade Center]. At the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I learned by teaching. I guess there just comes a time.

Taking in Windows on the World Wine School’s Final Semester

Did you consider not continuing after 9/11?

Yes, the Wine School was the last thing in my mind and in my heart. I knew half of those who perished at Windows on the World. But my family encouraged me, as did [chef] Michael Lomonaco, who I helped hire and who had just taken the course. My therapist told me I had to continue what I do best in life, or I would die inside. Within six weeks, we moved the classes to the Marriott Marquis. All my friends from Windows came to that first class, and afterward, I was physically sick and emotionally drained. But terrorism didn’t end the Wine School. Nothing ever stopped it. In 40 years, I never missed a class.

How have your classes changed over the years?

The first 10 years, the students were mainly men over 40. Today, the ratio is 55 percent [women]. And age doesn’t matter. A 21-year-old bonded with a student over 70, and it was fascinating to watch. The biggest difference is that I’m no longer able to offer the same caliber of wines. For the course’s first five years, we picked them directly from the Windows cellar, so students were tasting 1929 Bordeaux. I can’t do that anymore. Forty percent of the wines now come from my own cellar. Not to be selfish, but it hurts to see my Bordeaux go into my car.

If my course had just been about wine, it never would have lasted. It’s interactive. It’s entertaining, I want people to talk. I studied elementary education. After the third glass of wine, it’s not a class. It’s crowd control.

Your course started the same year as the Judgment of Paris. How has American wine evolved?

Windows [developer] Joe Baum told me to create the biggest and best wine list in the country. It turned out to be primarily French and German, with a smattering of Californian and South American. The Judgment of Paris woke up Americans, and we started to add as many California wines as French wines. But if you told me 40 years ago that Americans would be the world’s No. 1 wine consumer, or that wine would be made in every state, I would have said you are crazy.

Any memorable anecdotes from your classes?

Once, a 1929 bottle of Bordeaux fell to the floor and smashed to pieces. The room fell silent and the server felt terrible about it obviously, but I told him that these things happen.

One guy took the course 20 years ago, and during the German class, he told us he spoke German, but faked it all the way through. He returns each year for that class, and no one knows he’s a shill.

If my course had just been about wine, it never would have lasted. It’s interactive. It’s entertaining, I want people to talk. I studied elementary education. After the third glass of wine, it’s not a class. It’s crowd control.

What are your predictions for wine’s Next Big Thing?

I don’t see a new frontier—that’s the sad part. People talk about China, and I did a tasting with Robert Parker, but [the wine] just wasn’t there yet. It might get there, though. On the flip side, we are making the best wines we ever have. Though the wine world has settled down in terms of new regions, the existing ones are focusing on quality, which is going up. 

What’s the biggest thing you will take away from running the Wine School?

The thing I’m proudest of is how it’s affected people. There are 200 people who have taken the class or worked at Windows and went on to the wine business, including writers, retailers, restaurateurs and importers. When I walk into a restaurant or a tasting, I always see someone I know. 

Is wine the most important thing in your life?

Surprisingly, no. Number one is music—I went to Woodstock and moved to nearby New Paltz right after. Number two is sports—I was a basketball coach for 30 years. Number three is wine. I’ve had the chance to travel the world and taste unbelievable food and wine. In the World Trade Center, we had a west-facing room. I’d open the curtains and toast the sunset. I never had a bad time. But I believe you have to live a full, rounded life.

Published on November 30, 2016
Topics: Wine Enthusiast Q+A


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