In the spring of 2001, I enrolled in Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine School. During those eight weeks, I was inspired by Zraly’s passion and ability to spin wine in a way that was diametrically opposed to the esoteric and inaccessible way I had always envisioned it.
When the course was over, I knew that I wanted to jump ship from the tech field that I, a Communication and French major, somehow fell into. I moved to Washington DC and continued my wine education. I launched a wine education business, received a diploma from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. And, finally, I became a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer.
I recently attended one of Zraly’s classes as an alum, to cover the 40th (and final) semester of one of the world’s most successful wine schools.
Before I took Zraly’s course 15 years ago, my experience with wine was limited to the Aussie Shiraz that was ubiquitous on store shelves at the time, or a flute of sweet, fizzy Asti Spumanti with a New Year’s toast. Studying wine was definitely daunting.
Armed with my class binder and Type-A competitiveness, I would take the E train from my office in midtown Manhattan to the World Trade Center and ascended to the 102nd floor. I would arrive early enough to each week to snag a seat in the front row, and there, would taste wine under Zraly’s tutelage.
Gregarious, he loomed larger than life, yet made wine so approachable. Each class, he would gesture toward the view behind him and dramatically ask, “Ladies and gentlemen, can you imagine a more breathtaking setting in which to taste wine?”
That memory still gives me chills.
We studied German wines one week, Bordeaux another, California the next. Throughout the course, I picked up Zraly-isms of tasting and evaluating wine that I still use today. “The first taste of wine is a shock to your taste buds,” he would tell us. “So don’t judge it prematurely.”
If I look back at my tasting notes for that last class, except a few favorites marked with stars, the pages are blank. We were all having too much fun.
Each class was filled with the sound of students toasting each other (and Zraly, if you were lucky enough to be up front), along with laughter and chatter. He would often ask us to turn to our neighbors and share opinions about the wines we liked best, if they were balanced, if they needed more time.
I walked out each week already looking forward to the next class, and all too quickly, we wrapped things up by sipping Port and toasting with Champagne. If I look back at my tasting notes for that last class, except a few favorites marked with stars, the pages are blank. We were all having too much fun.
Before I returned to his class a few weeks ago, I took the E train from my hotel to the World Trade Center—my first time back there since 9/11. Emerging from the station to the sight of the new One World Trade Center, I walked to the two memorial pools set in the original footprints of the Twin Towers, then looked skyward and caught my breath.
That evening, I arrived at the Marriott Marquis early to again secure a front-row seat. The sweeping city and harbor backdrop had been replaced by framed artwork flanking a wood-paneled wall.
The setting was different, but everything else about the class was exactly the same. The sea of students sitting around me, comprised of all ages and stages in life and wine knowledge, was just as eager to taste wines that hailed from Burgundy and the Rhône Valley and wherever else the course would take them.
I smiled to myself that Zraly was still using paper handouts, and that the weekly syllabus hadn’t changed at all. Though the vintages were way more recent, we tasted a lot of the same producers we did in 2001. He reminded us, again, how that first sip of wine can be shocking to your palate.
I felt a little smug next to those newbies studying up on the Burgundian classifications. But when those tricky Premier Grand vs. Grand Cru labels also confused me, I realized that while I may be a “wine professional,” I would always be a student, too.
Zraly’s energy was still off the charts. He worked the room and ribbed students on the questions they had emailed him for homework. By the time we got to the Grand Cru wines (“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Pinot Noir”), he declared he hadn’t been spitting. He then proved that no one else had either, tossing a student’s empty spit cup onto the floor.
He instructed us to stand up so we could see the opaque hues of the Rhône wines from above. By then, everyone had loosened up. A lot. The clinking glasses, the laughter, the chatter, it all brought me back to that first class.
After class, I lingered along with 20 or so students to talk with our instructor. As I left to catch the train back, I thought about how Zraly told me that he feels lucky to have been in the wine business during its most important 40 years.
I may not have nearly as much time under my belt, but thanks to him and those amazing eight weeks in 2001, I feel unbelievably lucky to be a part of the wine business, too.