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Kevin on Earth

At the sky-high Windows on the World, Kevin Zraly made it cool to be a sommelier. Now his acolytes are hitting the ground and fanning out across the country.

Kevin Zraly has always been a man ahead of his time. Six years ago, that probably saved his life. On February 26, 1993, Zraly--wine director of Manhattan's Windows on the World restaurant, founder of the Windows on the World Wine School, lecturer, scholar, author, father and self-described wino--decided to drive home early. Two hours later, a bomb ripped through the World Trade Center garage. "I was lucky," he recalls, in an uncharacteristic understatement.

Tonight, Zraly is back on top of the world--at the top of the World Trade Center, that is, 107 floors above Manhattan. He's just uncorked his 23rd annual eight-week Windows wine course, which 10,000 students have attended since 1976. As the lights of New Jersey sparkle in the distance, Zraly, 48, bounds down the aisles like a barrel-chested Jerry Springer. "Everybody say poo-lay foo-may," he booms into the mike. "If you can say it, you can buy it!" Part comedian, part televangelist, Zraly quickly rouses his audience, a well-tailored collection of Wall Street heavy hitters and thirtysomething sophisticos. It's easy to see why his book, The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, has sold more than a million copies. "What's the name of the grape?" Zraly calls out. "Don't be shy. I. Can't. Hear. You!" It's quite obvious that this man is more than a gifted teacher; in the wine world, Zraly is a bona-fide celebrity.

During his three-decade reign at Windows, Zraly created the wine list with the largest sales in the country. Before Zraly, it's fair to say that the average American restaurant didn't pay much attention to wine. In fact, it was once looked upon as little more than a European affectation; Americans, after all, used to prefer spirits with their supper. Today, of course, a good wine list is considered an integral part of any memorable restaurant experience.

Zraly was also the first to champion American wines; at a time when serious restaurants had only French wines on their lists, Zraly was featuring California Chardonnays. "Kevin really put America on the map," says Rebecca Chapa, a Zraly disciple and the former sommelier at New York's Montrachet and San Francisco's Jardinière. "I think Americans were afraid to like domestic wines until Kevin said it was okay. He made drinking them cool."

Perhaps even more important, Zraly made the role of sommelier cool. Over the years, he has inspired a legion of acolytes, among them several men and women now among the corps d'elite of the contemporary wine scene.

The Making of a Sommelier
Zraly found his calling while studying elementary education ("it's where the girls were") and tending bar at an upstate New York restaurant, The DePuy Canal House, which in 1970 received four stars from The New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne. Zraly recalls how people poured in following the review, including one man who expressed dissatisfaction with the wine selection. Zraly says, "I remember thinking, what's his problem? We have three wines: a red, a white and a rosé." The 19-year-old bartender obviously had a lot to learn.

Lesser men might have simply added a Chianti and called it a day, but Zraly became obsessed. He devoured anything he could read about wine, pasted wine labels in a journal and made pilgrimages to New York vineyards. During the summer of his 21st birthday, he hitchhiked to California to visit its vineyards and shortly thereafter went to Europe to do the same. By the time he was 24, he'd been everywhere fine wine was made. But Zraly's big break came when he landed a job with legendary restaurateur Joe Baum, who was building a gastronomic temple at the top of the world's tallest building, the World Trade Center. Ralph Hersom, a Zraly protégé who is now the wine director at Manhattan's Le Cirque 2000, recounts that seminal interview: "Baum says, 'So, Kevin, what do you know about wines?' Kevin replies, 'Well, I like to drink 'em.'"

The Rise of Zraly's Disciples
All of Zraly's protégés have stories to tell about working with him and about how they flourished under his tutelage. In 1996, upon hearing that Windows was reopening after the bombing, Hersom--an engineering student ("I hated it") turned San Francisco sommelier--pestered Zraly with a series of self-promotional postcards. "I was ridiculous," Hersom admits, "but I knew whoever got the job of cellar master would be on his way." Zraly finally invited Hersom to come for an interview. "I was 25," Hersom recalls. "I was the same age Kevin was when he started as cellar master at Windows, and I think I reminded Kevin of himself. When he hired me, Kevin said, 'I'd take a true believer over a wine geek any day.'"

Hersom had been at Windows a year when Zraly received a call from Le Cirque's owner Sirio Maccioni, who was looking for a sommelier. Zraly recommended Hersom. "Sirio didn't want stuffiness," Hersom explains. "He liked the sense of excitement I brought from working with Kevin."

Jerry Clemmer, who began as a "pourer" in one of Zraly's wine classes and is now director of restaurants at Houston's Omni Hotel, recalls a similar sense of excitement about Zraly's approach. "Take Champagne," Clemmer says. "I always thought Dom Pérignon was overrated, but Kevin told me, 'Try the 1968.' And that Dom blew me away. Kevin's main thing is challenging assumptions, never listening to the mob. He taught me to work that way, too."

Andrea Immer also experienced an awakening thanks to Zraly. A former investment banker, Immer worked her way up from the grimy, in-the-trenches, bottle-fetching job of "cellar rat" to become Windows' first female beverage director. "I started by working in Kevin's class. I found I loved wine so much that I wanted to make it my life," she says. "Kevin told me, 'You gotta go to Europe.'" She did. When she returned in 1990, she became coordinator of Zraly's wine school; later, she became co-host of the Food Network's Quench. Today, Immer is the beverage director at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, a columnist for Esquire and a co-founder of the American Sommelier Association. She says that she's still awed by Zraly's impact on restaurant culture: "Before Kevin, a wine list was really no more than an amenity."

Zraly's disciples also champion his commitment to inexpensive wines. "I once found a bottle of Paul Masson in his fridge," Clemmer says. "'For cooking?' I asked him. Kevin said, 'No, I drink it.'" And though equally fond of drinking expensive wines, Zraly delights in debunking the myths that surround the great ones. "Kevin does this thing called 'wine travels' to show what really happens to wine before it gets to your table," Immer says. "He brings out a $350 bottle of Château Latour and runs around the room, shaking it like a maniac. It's vintage Kevin. He's got a deep interest in the reality of wine." Clemmer admits to having made use of the routine himself: "I once had a maître d' freak out when someone put a case of expensive red into a cooler. So I gave him Kevin's 'wine travels' routine." Adds Chapa, "Kevin has utterly extensive knowledge, but it's never a barrier between him and anybody else. I think a lot of wine directors try to hoard information; Kevin empowers you."

And Zraly did all of this while living in upstate New York, a two-hour drive from Manhattan. His home is set in the woods, surrounded by pine trees. Two things in his office there reveal the focus of his life: walls lined with wine books and a Tonka dump truck on the floor. For beyond what Zraly calls the realm of the grape, he is a committed family man with a wife, Ana; three sons, Anthony, Nicolas and Harrison; and a new baby girl, Adriana.

Zraly is at the top of a profession he largely created himself, and he is quite comfortable with the notion that his hardest work is behind him. Asked to cite a future goal, he does reveal one unfulfilled ambition. "You know," he muses, "I always wanted to be sommelier at the Last Supper."

Andrew Essex is a staff writer at Entertainment Weekly.

Published July 1999
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