Learning How to Enjoy Wine with Kevin Zraly

Luckily for us, Kevin Zraly was absent not just during the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers, but also during the first bombing of Tower 1 in 1993. As the first wine cellar master of the famous restaurant Windows on the World, and now author of several books, Mr. Zraly has been teaching an informative wine class, called Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, for 34 years. The classes are meant to arm any wine enthusiast, whether novice or experienced, with a true understanding of basic wine identification and pairing. Pairing with what, you ask? Why FOOD, of course!!!

Recently, at the Continental/Chase VIP lounge in the Short Hills Mall, a temporary haven for holiday shoppers, I attended a brief but informative wine tasting guest starring Mr. Zraly himself. The event – strictly for Continental/Chase card members – was catered with light hors d’oeuvres by Events by Joni (Montclair-based caterer and event planner), and featured four wines of Kevin’s choice: two white, and two red.

The white wines were a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and a Carneros, California chardonnay. The difference in texture as put by Mr. Zraly is like the difference between whole milk and cream. The third most widely used grape for white wines, riesling, would be closer to skim milk in this comparison, though we did not taste any. The red wines – which I have always loved but now find don’t love me – were a Spanish rioja made with tempranillo grapes, and a cabernet sauvignon from the Bordeaux region of France. Only the more fuller-bodied wines were paired with food. The chardonnay was paired with a porcini mushroom pate on toast point and seared tuna on wonton crisp, both of which had just the right textures and flavors (woodiness of the mushrooms, and richness of the tuna with a tangy bite of wasabi sauce). Another perfect pairing was the tenderloin of beef with caramelized onions and the tenderloin of duck with raspberry, served with the 2006 Chateau Leoville Barton Bordeaux. The only complaint I have was that I wanted more of everything!

Going through the motions of swirling (oxygenating – or aerating), smelling (our most superior sense), and tasting, I learned a plethora of information. How covering the glass with your hand while swirling – and being careful not to get your hand wet as I did – intensifies the “nose” (bouquet and aroma); or, how 3 to 5 seconds in the mouth allows the wine to warm up and come into contact with all taste buds, as well as the olfactory system. And, how a wine with high tannin content (tannins, I learned, are natural preservatives) like a full-bodied cabernet sauvignon, tastes best with fattier foods to cut the dryness – like cheese or steak.

All in all, the event was a condensed version of Mr. Zraly’s course, and was truly indicative of just that. Kevin is at once intensely passionate, witty, and above all, generous with his knowledge. He is not interested in creating a class of sommeliers (restaurant wine stewards), or pretentious collectors. He is interested in keeping it real, and for that matter, fun, for the average consumer. Americans, he tells us, are the number one consumers of all wines produced worldwide. But exactly what are we drinking, and how do we know we are getting a good wine? What are the three most common grapes used to make white wines, or red wines, anywhere in the world? What are tannins, and how long should we let our wines age?! Kevin will answer all of these questions, and more.

If you cannot get to his course, now at the Marriott Marquis hotel in midtown, be sure to purchase his book, Windows on the World Complete Wine Course 25th Anniversary Edition, which covers everything he teaches in the course, albeit without the benefit of constant laughter.

Tracy Goldenberg began her career in writing/marketing in the financial services industry. She has since explored different alternatives for her many talents, and is currently latching on to the green-living machine. Undergoing an extreme mid-life career crisis, she figures food and wine (and of course exercise) will carry her through. She has always lived by the motto “work hard play hard”.