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"Awful" wine sparked career of NYC wine guru Zraly

Kevin Zraly was offered a bottle of wine that survived the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, but he didn't even want to see it.
/ Source: Reuters

Kevin Zraly was offered a bottle of wine that survived the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, but he didn't even want to see it.

"It's quite possible that some bottles survived," said the former wine director of Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the North Tower. "But I didn't want to look. I told him: 'keep it. It's yours.'"

The man who has taught squadrons of sommeliers and companies of cellar masters; who is known for his ready laugh and good stories is silent. His blue eyes stare at a glass of Sancerre.

It's been 10 years since the attacks. "I never, ever call it an anniversary," he said. "Anniversaries are celebrations."

His wine primer "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course," which has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, is Zraly's way of honoring the more than 70 of his colleagues who died on Sept 11, 2001.

He started the six-week course almost by chance, having been asked "to put something together" for what was then, in 1976, a private lunch club at Windows. It became so popular it was opened to the public in 1980. More than 19,000 people graduated.

Zraly grew up in a home that didn't serve wine. But in 1970 he was a college student at SUNY New Paltz, about a 90-minute drive north of New York City, who was looking for "beer money" and took a bartending job a local restaurant. Shortly after he started, the top restaurant critic for the New York Times gave the place a 4-star review.

A customer who had traveled from Manhattan to the restaurant specifically after the review appeared, complained the wines were awful. "We offered wine - red and white," he laughed.

"So I was asked to put a wine list together and get some decent wine in."

That's when he began researching and teaching himself all about wine.

When he was 25 and working as a salesman, Zraly went to Windows on the World before it opened to try and sell them some wine. Instead the owner, Joe Baum, offered him the job of cellar master.

Baum gave him carte blanche to amass a world-class wine cellar.

"Remember this was back in the 70s," Zraly said. "Americans didn't know much about wine and wine was pretty much synonymous with France."

It was also a time when top Bordeaux could be had for well under $100 a bottle, white wine meant Germany and there were fewer than 20 wineries in Napa, California.

"I still have the wine lists from 1993 after the bombing," he said, speaking of the first attack on the World Trade Center.

Reflecting his populist approach, Zraly said with pride: "We had bottles of wine on the list for $8."

There was also a 1928 Lafite-Rothschild for $3,000.

He still teaches the course, but only twice a year at the New York's Marriott Marquis Hotel.

Like Windows, the hotel's main restaurant is also on the roof. His memoir "A Glass Half Full: A Cellar Master's Journey Through Wine and Life" is due out next spring.

As for the surviving bottle?

"It is possible..." Zraly said.

Windows had a 60,000-bottle collection.

"In addition to the cellar that we had at the top, we had another cellar all the way at the bottom."