Kevin Zraly may be best known as the wine director for the Windows on the World restaurant and founder of the Windows on the World Wine School on the top floors of the former 1 World Trade Center in New York, NY. After the loss of the restaurant in 2001, Zraly continued the wine school for another 15 years at the Marriot Marquis in Manhattan, ultimately educating more than 20,000 wine lovers over the course of 40 years. Zraly himself graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education from State University of New York at New Paltz, where he taught his first wine class as a junior. Kevin is the author of seven wine books, and a memoir—A Glass Half Full: A Cellarmaster’s Journey Through Wine and Life. Among many awards, Zraly received the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.
Read more about Kevin in the written interview below:
Karen MacNeil: You have been a mentor to dozens of wine professionals and sommeliers. Did you yourself have a mentor? Tell us about her/him.
Kevin Zraly: Unfortunately, at the beginning of my career, there weren’t that many wine people around to talk with or to help me. I pretty much did it on my own. My parish priest, Father Matarazzo, taught me many things about life, including my first romance language, Latin. He would always have one glass of red wine with his meal. He also sponsored me for my first trip to visit the vineyards in Europe. He is still a good friend today, retired, 88, and living in Louisville, KY, and still drinking his one glass of red wine!
KM: What do you believe is Windows on the World’s contribution to the American restaurant industry?
KZ: Everyone should read the new book called The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World by Tom Roston. When Windows on the World opened in 1976, it was at least 20 years ahead of the times when it came to a well-priced wine list. Also, a second dining space—The Hors d’Oeuvrerie—served only small plates. The showpiece was Cellar in the Sky, the 32-seat dining room which offered only one seating at 7:30 p.m., for a 7-course meal paired with 5 wines. The menu changed every two weeks.
KM: You taught your last Windows on the World Wine Course in 2016. Why did you decide to end its prolific run?
KZ: Three reasons: (1) It was its 40th anniversary, (2) It was the 15th year since September 11, and (3) the cost of the wines were becoming astronomical, especially French wines. When I couldn’t afford to serve a first growth Bordeaux, I knew the students were not getting a complete wine education. It wasn’t for lack of students… our last class in 2016 had over 175 students! I opted for smaller, more intimate style wine classes and created the Advanced Wine Classes with [the wine retailer] Sherry-Lehmann in New York with a maximum of 40 people.
KM: How many wines do you estimate you have tasted in your lifetime? Do you have a most memorable tasting moment or wine?
KZ: Tens of thousands. There is never one moment; when I open a great bottle of wine, it brings me to the place where the grapes were grown and to the people who made the wine. I have tasted every vintage of Chateau Latour from 1900 to 2016. I was also very lucky to taste every vintage of Beaulieu Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 1936 to 1986, a 50-year perspective over a two day period with André Tchelistcheff..
“[Do I have a most memorable tasting moment?] There is never one moment; when I open a great bottle of wine, it brings me to the place where the grapes were grown and to the people who made the wine.”
KM: With whom, living or dead, would you most want to share a prized bottle of wine from your cellar?
KZ: Some day when I’m retired, I’m going to write a book called “God Loves Wine” since wine has been important to most religions of the world. I first learned about wine from Father Matarazzo, as an altar boy. Therefore, I would like to share a glass of wine with Jesus. Thomas Jefferson, America’s first wine connoisseur, would be my other choice. As Ambassador to France and later as President of the United States, he had a great love of European wines and he also unsuccessfully planted a vineyard at Monticello, Virginia.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
KM: I understand that you have been working on a screenplay. Is it about wine? Tell us about it.
KZ: I wrote a screenplay when I was in my twenties which was about senior year at Pleasantville High School, Pleasantville, New York, Class of 1969. Currently I’m working on a Broadway musical on the legendary restaurateur Joe Baum featuring James Beard, Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Milton Glaser and more.
KM: Speaking of movies, what do you think about all the SOMM movies?
KZ: As one of America’s first, and possibly youngest, sommeliers at age 19, I grew up in an era where I had to learn everything about wine on my own. The SOMM movies are a different perspective on becoming a sommelier in today’s world.
KM: Who would play you in a movie about your life? And what would it be called?
KZ: Coincidentally, there is a treatment already written about my becoming a sommelier—from when I was 18 at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, to getting the job at Windows on the World at age 25. That was an exciting 6 years of my life. It’s a comedy. A young Brad Pitt would play me! No name yet.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
KZ: My children, vintages ’91, ’93, ’97, ’99. And having taught 20,000 wine students over the last 50 years!