A Bottle of White? 30th Anniversary of Kevin Zraly’s Wine Course

Kevin Zraly, Windows on the World Complete Wine Course 30th Anniversary Edition. Sterling Epicure, 2014

Pearls (traditional) or diamonds (modern practice) are the symbols associated with a 30th anniversary according to Hallmark and it would be easy to make a case for either as a suitable metaphor when it comes to the 30th anniversary of Kevin Zraly’s  wine guide.

The U.S. wine revolution is only about 50 years old. People like Kevin Zraly and books like this one took a budding wine culture and helped nurse it into full bloom.  The publication of this 30th anniversary edition of Zraly’s book is cause for celebration and, like a wedding anniversary,both  looking back and pondering the future.

The Commanding Heights

So it is both appropriate and  interesting that Zraly writes here about his personal journey through wine and about the famous Windows on the World restaurant (and wine school).  The restaurant and school were perched high atop the World Trade Center in New York City and from those commanding heights Zraly directed an ambitious wine education initiatuve until that fateful day — September 11, 2001 — when the building (but not the program) came crashing down.

Sue and I had the pleasure to dine at Windows on the World just once — in the company of her parents, Mike and Gert. I can remember everything about the view (the Statue of Liberty seemed like a toy down in harbor below us) and the company, but alas nothing in particular about the food. I’m pretty sure that the wine we drank was a relatively modest cru Beaujolais — a choice that Zraly (who probably put the wine on the list) would approve according to his restaurant wine advice here.

A Bottle of White? A Bottle of Red? 

Zraly has been an enormously successful wine educator. His approach as outlined in the book works so well because  he basically asks the student/reader to engage with wine as one would in a restaurant — doesn’t that make sense? Where many wine guides jump into geography, geology, variety and so forth in encyclopedic detail, Zraly more or less begins with the question, “A bottle of white? A bottle of red?” as you would in a restaurant.

So this is wine list 101 — simple, clear and useful — that empowers the reader through its easy approach but also provides enough depth and detail to draw her in. White wines come first as they often  do on the wine menu, with chapters on France, the U.S. and Germany. Then red wines: Burgundy and the Rhone, Bordeaux and California. Spain and Italy share a chapter as do Champagne, Sherry and Port. If Zraly was based in San Francisco instead of New York the Old World – New World order might be different, but I’m sure the basic approach would stay the same.

Finally we have the rest of Zraly’s world with a chapter than roams Austria, Hungary, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. Obviously breadth takes precedence over depth here and in the book generally, but its a big wine world and Zraly has fewer than 400 pages to work with. This will frustrate the seasoned enthusiast looking for esoteric information, but if it does then maybe this book isn’t for you. And in any case, I found something to learn in each chapter when I drilled down. A final chapter looks at food and wine pairings and provides lists of best wines and best values under $30.

I applaud Zraly’s decision to look beyond the usual suspects in the U.S. wine industry, although I wish he’d go into more detail, especially about Washington and Oregon where I spend a good deal of my time. His discussion of California is detailed, as befits the largest producing state, followed by basic information about Washington, Oregon, New York, Virginia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina and Illinois (sorry Idaho — maybe next time). Zraly played an indirect role in the spread of wine producton from coast to coast — good to honor that contribution here.

Sometimes More (Zraly) is More

Criticisms? There is a lot of interesting data here, but I couldn’t find  many sources, which was frustrating since some of the statistics are (inevitably) out of date . Ernie Loosen will be surprised to learn that he has “recently” entered into a partnership with Chateau Ste Michelle to make Eroica Riesling wine in Washingtong State, for example. The relationship goes back to 1999.

And as with the last edition I am disappointed with the “digital” elements. QR codes send you to web pages with very brief videos of Zraly in action, pronunciation guides and to an on-line store where you can purchase wines.

Zraly’s videos show why he has been such an influential teacher, but at about 2 minutes each they are too short to add very much. One video was mainly devoted to showing a chart that was printed on the page where the QR code was found, which seemed redundant to me. I think the videos are a good idea, but if Zraly is going to do them there needs to be more time and effort invested. My suggestion: instead of overviews why not pick a topic in the book and drill down in the video, taking full advantage of the opportunity of live action? Use the videos to add to the book in ways that text and tables cannot.

But these are small matters in the bigger context and not things that you want to dwell on when making a 30th anniversary toast (Champagne is best for this, we are advised, and I won’t argue even though I’m on a Prosecco kick these days). So cheers to Zraly and the book he has used to help guide us all these years. I hope both man and book enjoy many more years (and editions) and that the wine culture they have helped create will continue to bloom extravagantly.

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A bottle of white? A bottle of red? Sorry, I couldn’t resist a Billy Joel video. Cheers!

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3 responses

  1. In 1976, my boss, knowing my interest in wine, gave me his copy of the Windows on the World wine course. He had taken it to get an understanding of wine and passed it along to me. I found it interesting but didn’t continue with it as I had been enjoying wine for years, and found it rather simplistic. That said, I believe Zraly made a great contribution to understanding wine.

    I too had a lunch with my family at Windows…a truly unique and memorable experience…and one that now can never be recreated. I felt a deep pain when i saw that tower of WTC ‘implode’. i stayed across from WTC in 1990, at the Vista Hotel (adjacent to One Liberty Plaza which was headquarters of Merrill Lynch where I once worked, and later Four WTC, where it moved prior to 9/11). During a wild thunderstorm couldn’t help but wonder how they would ever demolish those towers down without destroying surrounding buildings, at some later date when they were ‘deemed’ obsolete. As it turned out, it was surprisingly, and sickeningly, a simple task, but my memories remain of what once was. Still can’t get over having been in five buildings damaged or destroyed on 9/11.
    …but I digress…sorry it just brought back a lot of memories, both good and bad.

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