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Windows on the World’s leading wine guru is coming to Hilton Head.

Story By Charlie Clark

New York magazine hailed it as the most spectacular restaurant in the world and Kevin Zraly was its king of wine. Windows on the World sat atop New York’s World Trade Center where oenophiles and newbies learned about vino from one of the world’s most passionate lovers and teachers of wine.

Upon hire, he was instructed to amass the best wine cellar in the world. He was 25 years old at the time. When asked about his wine staff, he was told, “None, you’re it,” by famed restauranteur Joe Baum, and a wine legend was launched, as noted in Tom Roston’s recent book celebrating the 40th anniversary of the legendary New York hot spot.

At the ripe old age of 21, Zraly hitchhiked to California to feed his love for wine in Napa Valley. He’s traveled all over the globe, dined with Julia Child and a host of other culinary A-listers and celebs, but when asked about his most memorable meals, he quickly and emphatically exclaims “last night’s!” before telling the tale of a crazy Italian restaurant in Brooklyn where the wine was flowing, stories were told and he got to sit next to his 4th-grade girlfriend.

According to Zraly, when he started in the wine business there wasn’t a lot of good wine in the world which he compares to today’s “golden age of wine.” He notes that France, of course, was known for its wine, but California had barely scratched the surface of its heyday in his early days in the business.

Remembering 9/11

Zraly still talks about Sept. 11, 2001, as a pivot point in his life. He was not at the restaurant that day, but 79 of his colleagues perished in the attack. Following 9/11, Zraly was traumatized by the event and lost his sense of smell, a vital instrument of his craft. He regained it in subsequent years, but it speaks volumes about the closeness of the Windows on the World family of chefs and staff.

Zraly is fond of his Windows on the World chef colleagues but talks about how chefs and sommeliers don’t always get along.

“Restaurants used to build food around the wine list and now it’s just the opposite,” said Zraly, who notes that foods like artichoke, kale, spinach and arugula add bitterness to the taste of wine and in his words, can “destroy every wine in its path.”

2020 trends

When asked about the biggest trends in wine today, he quickly notes that it’s about technology and sustainability. “The accessibility to wine and wine knowledge has grown tremendously,” says Zraly. “Everyone is also very into sustainability,” he says. They’re on the hunt for organic wines and are interested in where the grapes come from and how they’re grown.

Don’t overdo it

One of the most common questions he hears in his wine classes and elsewhere is “why does wine give me a headache?” to which he answers the obvious: ”because you overindulged.” It’s the far more common culprit than the content of the wine, according to Zraly.

Passion for sports & theatre

While wine is a leading passion for Zraly, it’s not at the top of his list. His love of theater takes that spot and he discusses plans to produce a musical based on his Windows on the World experience. Sports are also a passion for him and he’s an avid basketball fan.

The bible of wine

Zraly’s “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course” is widely considered the bible of wine with millions of copies sold. He updates the book on a regular basis and noted that the entry to his next update may very well be “I. Give. Up,” alluding to the vast number of wines now available worldwide, thanks to technology and the ever-growing number of wineries around the world.

Wine school

Zraley is noted as one of the world’s foremost wine teacher and has said that after the third glass of wine at one of his courses, it may be more about crowd control than learning. He relishes and encourages the interactive nature of his classes and believes that’s part of the magic of why they’re so widely enjoyed. He offers both beginner and advanced classes at Sherry-Lehmann in New York. When teaching, he often asks if anyone knows the meaning of the word restaurant and whether he’s teaching at the Culinary Institute of America or one of his wine classes, the audience is usually perplexed. He clues them into the fact that the word restaurant means “to restore” in Latin. He sees it as a fitting way to view his life’s work in some of the world’s greatest restaurants.

Meet him at the Chamber Ball

Zraly will be on the island next month for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber’s annual gala at 6:30 p.m., Feb. 1 at Marriott Hilton Head Resort & Spa. The event will feature eight other chefs who worked together at Windows on the World in its heyday, including local chef and owner of Hilton Head Social Bakery, Philippe Feret, who is spearheading the gathering of Windows chef alumni.

Zraly will lend a hand in choosing the wines for the gala, as well as hosting a wine bar in the main salon during the evening where patrons can talk one-on-one with the famed wine teacher. The evening’s menu will offer tapas-style cuisine pairing Windows on the World chefs with local culinary notables including Feret, Lucky Rooster’s Clayton Rollison, Chaun Bescos of WiseGuys, Brian Coseo, executive chef of the Sea Pines Country Club, along with the Marriott’s executive chef Cesar Acevedo.

Many of the Window’s chefs have gone on to revered restaurant kitchens such as Le Bernadin, Tavern on the Green, the Rainbow Room and more. Marc Murphy of the Landmarc Restaurant Group and the hit Food Network show “Chopped” also will be part of the evening.

Limited tickets are available for the Windows on the World dinner at the Chamber Ball, along with tickets for a private wine course with Kevin Zraly. To purchase tickets, go to hiltonheadblufftonchamber.org.

One Hour Wine Expert

Take part in a sit-down, classroom-style, fast-paced, one-hour class on wine with Kevin Zraly on Jan. 31 at Sea Pines Country Club. A welcome reception starts at 4 p.m., followed by a presentation and book signing. Taste six wines from the six major grape varieties as you learn about wine and food pairings, wine styles and more. The event is open to the public and is presented in conjunction with the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce Chef to Chef Celebration to benefit the islands of the Bahamas impacted by Hurricane Dorian. Reserve online at seapinescountryclub.com or call 843-671-2345.


Q+A

Kevin Zraly answers frequently asked wine questions.

Q. What is tannin? [Kevin Zraly] Tannin is a natural preservative that is found in foods like walnuts, tea and grapes. The tannins in wine derive primarily from grape skins but can also come from the oak barrels in which certain wines are aged (which is why even some white wines, which are made without grape skins, have tannins). Tannins, when balanced with fruit, leave a tactile sensation in your mouth that is felt in the middle of your tongue. As a wine gets older, its tannins mellow and become visible in the wine as sediment. Of course, tannins are just one component of a wine’s structure; the best wines have a balance of tannins, fruit and acids.

Q. What is meant by vintage? [KZ] A vintage indicates the year the grapes were harvested, so every year is a vintage year. A vintage chart reflects the weather conditions for various years. Better weather usually results in a better rating for the vintage.

Q. Are all wines meant to be aged? [KZ] No. It’s a common misconception that all wines improve with age. In fact, more than 90 percent of all the wines made in the world are meant to be consumed within one year, and less than 1 percent of the world’s wines are meant to be aged for more than 5 years.

Q. Can white wine be made from red grapes? [KZ] Yes. The color of wine comes entirely from the grape skins. By removing the skins immediately after picking, no color is imparted to the wine, and it will be white. In the Champagne region of France, a large percentage of the grapes grown are red, yet most of the resulting wine is white. California’s White Zinfandel is made from red Zinfandel grapes.


Notable Achievements

  • Recipient of 2011 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Wine Director of Windows on the World from 1976-2001
  • Author of the Windows on the World Complete Wine Course book: Over 3 million copies sold, Ultimate Wine Companion, Kevin Zraly’s American Wine Guide, Kevin Zraly’s Wine Journal, A Glass Half Full: A Cellar Master’s Journey Through Life and Wine, and co-author of Red Wine, recipient of the Gourmand Best Wine Book of 2017 Award
  • Founder and instructor of the Windows on the World Wine School, with over 500 students per year. Over 20,000 students have completed the course to date.
  • Culinary Institute of America’s Board of Trustees member since 1990.
  • Winner of the James Beard Award for Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year in 1993.
  • 2009 recipient of Sante’s Wine Professional of the Year Award.
  • Recipient of the European Wine Council Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • Featured in The New York Times, People Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, GQ Magazine, and Newsweek.
  • Appeared on The Early Show on CBS and Live! with Regis and Kelly on ABC.

What’s trending

Kevin Zraly’s favorite wine regions (in no particular order):

  • Napa
  • Burgundy
  • Tuscany
  • Rhein
  • Sonoma
  • Champagne
  • Piedmont
  • Rioja
  • Bordeaux
  • Rhone Valley
  • Mosel
  • Douro (Port)