Kevin Zraly's pioneering work at Windows on the World and his entertainingly educational wine
courses have made him a much-loved figurehead of the New York wine scene, writes JOHN STIMPFIG
Zraly has ever had to make was how, when and indeed, whether to re-open his Windows on the World Wine School in Manhattan. He did so on 15 October 2001, a month after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, where he’d worked for over a quarter of a century. It wasn’t easy; 73 colleagues at Windows on the World were lost that day. So too were hundreds of former students. ‘After that session, I was physically sick from the emotion, stress and exhaustion,’ Zraly recalls.
For 48 hours after the attack on 11 September, Zraly shook uncontrollably. Today, he’s still in therapy. ‘It has been 12 months now, but sometimes it feels like 12 minutes. Emotionally, I will never be the same. The loss of life is incomprehensible. There is no closure.’ He says all this softly and matter-of-factly, in short staccato sentences.
These aren’t the only things he has to deal with. ‘The World Trade Center Complex was my New York. I shopped there. I stayed at the Marriott Hotel. My dentist and bank were all there. Meanwhile, Windows was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. We were the number-one dollar volume restaurant in the US and the number one wine seller in the world. The place was spectacular. Add that to the equation of death and devastation and I can’t express what I feel.’
At this moment though, Zraly is getting on with his life and work as best he can. His decision to re-open the wine classes at the Marriott Marquis Hotel has helped him enormously. ‘The show must go on. I’m not a Republican, but President Bush and Mayor Giuliani were right to tell people to continue to follow their passion.’
Kevin Zraly’s passion for wine began in 1970 when he got a summer job as restaurant bartender near Woodstock, not far from where he still lives with his wife and four children. Although 19 and still at college, he recalls that, ‘even then, I knew wine was what I wanted to do’. Zraly studied the subject like a zealot and at the tender age of 20 was already teaching his first wine course to 40 students.
At the same time, he was busily visiting vineyards in New York State. The following summer, he hitchhiked to California and, in 1974, spent a year backpacking around Europe (wine regions only). ‘It gave me a cultural perspective on the world which has helped me ever since.’
Back home, he headed straight for New York City where he was hired by a local wholesaler to look after 400 restaurant accounts. Although the then-new Windows on the World restaurant in lower Manhattan wasn’t one, Zraly was determined to get its custom. ‘I spent so much time waiting to see someone, people started to think I worked there.’
Eventually, he struck lucky, but not in the way he was expecting. Joe Baum, the great restaurateur at Windows, was looking for a young American Cellarmaster and Zraly fitted the bill to perfection. ‘I was in the right place at the right time,’ he acknowledges. Still only 25, with 10 days till opening, Zraly was put in charge of the entire wine programme.
It was a dream job. ‘Baum told me to create the biggest and best wine list that New York had ever seen.’ Zraly duly did as he was instructed and within two years, Windows was selling more wine than any other restaurant in the world. ‘We had 400–500 people for lunch and 800 for dinner. We were booked out 365 days a year and I was the only one working the floor, ordering the wine, training the staff and running wine education courses for club members and their friends.’ ‘Eventually though, I just couldn’t take those 14-hour days. I had to get off the floor.’ In 1980, he was made Windows’ wine director and remained so until September last year. The move freed him up to diversify into all sorts of areas for Windows – writing, TV appearances, consultancy and public wine classes.
What Zraly doing now?
Twenty-two years on, the Windows on the World Wine School is stronger than ever, in spite of the terrorist bomb in 1993 and the destruction of the WTC last year. Since 1980, Zraly has taught some 15,000 students in classes of up to 150 students, and has sold out for the last 15 years despite fees of $795 for eight sessions. Those who know Zraly say the secret of his success lies in his personality. ‘It’s his greatest talent,’ says sommelier Ralph Hersom. The result is a charismatic, funny presenter who knows an awful lot about wine. Zraly acknowledges that his informal style is different from most mainstream wine educators: ‘I’m a performer. My props are some great wines and I do a very interactive two-hour show.’
As a result, Zraly never pontificates or gets technical in class. ‘The harder you make it for people new to wine, the easier it is for them to say: “I give up – I’ll have a Heineken”.’ However, if the content isn’t too heavy, some of the wines can be pretty serious. It’s not uncommon for him to show a Château Lafite from his private cellar.
One conspicuously successful spin-off from the classes has been his WOW Complete Wine Course book, now in its 16th edition. It is written in Zraly’s typically idiosyncratic style. ‘I update it every year and rather than adding more pages, prefer to take stuff out that anyone just learning about wine doesn’t need to know,’ he adds. Currently, it’s the biggest-selling wine book in the US, having sold more than two million copies. For every copy bought, $1 is donated to the Windows of Hope charity, last year the 2002 edition donated $50,000. (To find out more about the charity, visit www.windowsofhope.org.)
But it’s not just wine neophytes who owe Zraly a debt of gratitude. Wine-loving diners owe him a fat tip, too. He has probably done more than anyone to improve the quality of wine service in US restaurants. One of his many protégés, Andrea Immer (see p50), describes him as a huge innovator. ‘He was the first person to push and popularise wine by the glass Stateside. He was also the first to offer customer-friendly pricing at Windows. He completely changed the way we do the job. Kevin made it cool to be a sommelier.’
Of course, this effort, talent and general super-stardom haven’t gone unnoticed. And although Zraly’s ‘not one for awards’ he’s picked up plenty. Most notably, he has been on the Board of Trustees of the Culinary Institute of America since 1990 and received the James Beard Award for Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year in 1993. Recently, he was given the European Wine Council Lifetime Achievement Award. ‘Looking back, I’ve been very lucky. Wine is my passion and my profession. Not many people can say that.’
Zraly’s future remains deliberately unclear. He wants to spend time with his family and not make too many decisions. But he has resolved not to go back into the restaurant business, partly so he can focus solely on wine. ‘I’m working on some books right now, but the School is what matters to me. Being ‘live’ is what I love best.’
At the end of the interview, I ask Kevin if there’s anything he wants to add? ‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘Although I’ve said enough about what happened last year, I must thank your readers for their messages and help. I’d also like to put on record that the way the New York wine and restaurant community raised an incredible amount of money for the victims’ families was unbelievable. They are great people. I felt that way before 11 September. I feel it even more now.’