Eric Asimov‘s recent “The Pour” New York Times column on Kevin Zraly and his career in wine is titled “The Accidental Wine Educator” and it is required reading for anyone interested in making or selling(or drinking” wine. It is a fine tribute to Zraly, an iconic figure who has done (and is still doing) so much to shape the American wine market.
Zraly is forever linked to Windows on the World, the fantastic restaurant at the top of New York’s World Trade Center back in the days before 9/11. His work there produced the Windows on the World Wine School, and a popular and influential book, The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course.
My first experience of the Zraly magic happened many years ago. 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 bright little jewel down in harbor far below us) and the company, but alas nothing in particular about the food. I’m pretty sure that the wine we drank was a modest cru Beaujolais — a choice that Zraly (who probably put the wine on the list) would approve because of its ability to pair with many meal choices.
I finally met Zraly and experienced his magic in person in 2015 when I spoke at an Italian wine conference in New York City. The weather outside was terrible — one of those frigid winter blasts — so we were all holed-up in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel — we pretended it was a cruise ship filled with Italian food and wine — best voyage ever!
Zraly was there to give a seminar on Italian sparkling wines and it was the hottest ticket on the program. A big crowd struggled to fit into the room and when I looked around the audience was a who’s who of wine. No one — me least of all! — wanted to miss whatever Kevin Zraly had to share with us.
But Zraly fooled us. He looked out at his audience and decided to “flip” the classroom, deftly orchestrating and organizing a terrific seminar where the audience took the stage, with Zraly as the wise stage manager and conductor. There was a ton of wine IQ in that room, but I think everyone came out knowing more than when they went in. And it was Zraly what did it. Amazing.
Asimov’s NYT column gave me a chance to remember and appreciate those moments and it also made me think about the secrets of Zraly’s success and how those secrets need to be constantly remembered and refreshed. Here are three things Zraly taught me.
Wine Won’t Sell Itself
I suspect that most people who came to the Windows on the World restaurant were interested in having a bottle or glass of wine with their meal. It was part of the experience. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t need help. Zraly realized that the success of his wine program depended on his staff, their knowledge of wine in general and the restaurant’s wine list in particular, and their ability to answer questions and guide diners towards that three-star wine experience they were seeking.
And so he became a wine educator offering classes first to his own staff and then, eventually, to the public through the Windows on the World Wine School. Zraly’s evolution from wine expert to wine educator in order to sell wine reminds me of someone I met at the Walla Walla Saturday Market a few years ago. He was selling organic meat (goat and chicken, as I recall). “I’m a redneck educator,” he said by way of introduction. His products sold for premium prices and he understood that consumers wouldn’t pay those prices unless they understood the benefits of his free-range organic goods. So he had to educate them before he could make the sale.
No one has to buy a particular wine or wine at all, but the more they understand about wine the more likely they are to be drawn into the world of wine. Zraly has probably helped sell millions of cases of wine over the years through his work as a strictly-not-redneck wine educator.
See Wine Through the Consumer’s Eyes
If you want to get a sense of Zraly’s wine class, simply pick up a copy of his best-selling Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. The book is based on the course and you can sometimes hear Kevin’s voice as you read it.
A lot of wine books are organized around geography: old world regions, new world regions, with sections on wine grape varieties and other topics. But people aren’t thinking about the world atlas when they sit down in a restaurant to order, so if you want to reach them you need to start from a different place.
Zraly’s book is organized around a restaurant wine list. Red wines, white wines, sparkling, Rosé, and so on. The goal isn’t to make the reader a wine expert, it is to make them comfortable choosing a wine from a wine list and knowledgeable enough to make pleasing choices. Indeed, as Zraly reveals in the Asimov article, some of his first students signed up because they were intimidated by the wine list or were afraid to make poor choices.
This is a great example of meeting customers where they are, not where you might want them to be. If the problem is dealing with the wine list, then make the wine is list the focus of the effort. You don’t have to have advanced WSET credentials to enjoy wine with dinner (at least I hope not).
When Consumers Move, Follow Them
When the covid pandemic hit many wineries had to shut down their tasting rooms and find other ways to connect with customers. Some had more success than others and it will be interesting to see which of these practices and strategies endure as the world of in-person experiences re-opens.
Zraly has followed his customers, too, and in the process has entered a global arena. When wine consumers moved on-line during the pandemic — to Zoom meet-ups and web-retailers — Zraly shifted gears to form a partnership with Wine.com for a series of one-hour classes that have run through the fall (the final class in December is on Pinot Noir). Tuition for the Pinot class is $100 and the wines, purchased through Wine.com, are about $300 more. Not inexpensive, but not too costly, either, given the quality of the wines and the rare opportunity to have a Kevin Zraly experience, albeit virtually. I hope Zraly and Wine.com continue their partnership in the future.
A thousand thanks to Kevin Zraly for all he has taught us about wine and how to sell it. And thanks, too, to Eric Asimov for his NYT profile of this great wine educator.