Kevin Zraly's Wine-Pricing Legacy

We associate his name with lively, accessible wine classes and books, but he's made contributions to other areas of our wine culture.

Kevin Zraly is America's quintessential wine educator, and as such his name has become synonymous with many facets of the wine world. One, of course, is the legendary Windows on the World restaurant and wine school, which were atop the World Trade Center until September 11th. Both restaurant and school were destroyed on that fateful day. Fortunately, Kevin was not in the Twin Towers. He survived that horror and, though still mourning for his lost friends and colleagues, he resurrected his Windows on the World Wine School at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York.

He is also, of course, emblematic of wine education in America today. He has changed the face of American wine education, making it livelier and more accessible. Over the past 25 years, he has taught over 14,000 students. Among them are hundreds of sommeliers, writers, educators, managers and importers who shape the American wine world today—people who were either on that career track or were so inspired by Kevin that they sought jobs in the wine industry. Kevin mentored author and Master Sommelier Andrea Immer, who is on the cover of this issue. An industry superstar is born. That is how pervasive his influence has been. For more on his career, see Karen Berman's ground-breaking report on American wine education.

But one of Kevin's most important contributions to American wine culture is little-known outside professional circles. That is his intelligent approach to the pricing of wine in restaurants. For years restaurant owners viewed wine as a profit center unlike any other part of their service. They frequently gouged their guests with outrageous markups, which were totally unrelated to their costs and completely out of line with the markups applied to food service. For example, a restaurateur might mark his food up 200 percent, and then mark his wine up 300 percent, or more. How can that be justified when you compare the logistics of presenting a full menu with the procedures for bringing wine to the table?

In 1978, Kevin Zraly devised a sliding scale of markups. It was never a precise, mathematical formula, but in general it worked like this: If a bottle cost the restaurant $10 or under, it might be priced at three times that amount. If it cost $10 to $15, it would be priced at 2.5 times that amount. If it cost $15 to 20; priced 2.25 times. And so on. In other words, the lower the cost, the higher the markup. It was not a precise formula, because, as Kevin quickly learned, the important thing is not a formula. The important thing is to price a wine at such a level that people want to buy it. At one end of the scale, customers in a fine-dining situation are suspicious of a bottle of wine priced at $6. At the other end of the scale—and Kevin is the first to say so—$50 (or more) for a bottle of wine is a lot of money, no matter who you are. The artistry and excellence of a sommelier, he believes, is in finding a $10 bottle of wine that tastes like a $20 bottle.

Before this sliding scale was implemented, customers didn't often order wine by the bottle. The house pour ruled the tables (remembers carafes?). This generic house wine was generally of poor quality and had a negative impact on people's perception of how delicious wine could be, and how perfectly it complements food. The high price of wine in restaurants was responsible, in part, for stunting American's growth in wine appreciation. Once intelligent wine managers began to adopt Kevin's pricing philosophy, better quality wines were more frequently sold and tasted. Innovative restaurateurs realized that profits could be derived from a thriving wine business with fair pricing. Premium wine programs flourished, bringing more and more quality wine into the hands of new wine consumers. These people became today's wine enthusiasts.

The word "trend" sometimes takes on a bad connotation, of people blindly following what they're told. But there is nothing negative about the trend in wine education in this country, which was jump-started by Kevin Zraly.


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