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Wine Coach Fills His Students' Cups With Confidence

Dining: Kevin Zraly teaches business executives how to choose the right bottle for any occasion.


NEW YORK — Mairead Courtney suffered an embarrassing humiliation at a business meal: Confused and somewhat intimidated by a restaurant wine list, she made a quick choice.

"I ordered red wine, but one of the guests called the sommelier over and asked for another bottle because he didn't think it went with the food," the New York-based event planner recalled, wincing. "It made me feel like I didn't know anything."

Peeved and embarrassed by having her wine inexperience so publicly spotlighted, she enrolled in a wine class taught by Kevin Zraly, one the country's most prominent wine coaches.

Zraly's mission is to demystify wine and empower his students with confidence when faced with a snooty sommelier or choosing, say, between a Pouilly-Fume or a Pouilly-Fuisse.

Zraly, who also is wine director at Windows on the World restaurant in New York City, has coached corporate executives, Wall Street analysts and brokers, and conference and event coordinators at such firms as Merrill Lynch, Salomon Smith Barney, American Express, Coca-Cola and Bentley Motor Cars.

For traveling businesspeople, "You want to have fun, and you have to have dinner at business conferences," he said. "My approach is, take out the lies, myths and other tales of wine."

Some falsehoods Zraly debunks:

* All wine must be aged. "Ninety percent should be drunk within one year."

* It has to be white wine with the fish. "If people at your table are eating meat, fish and poultry, what's the single best wine? Red wine from the Pinot Noir grape: It has a lighter style, higher acidity, low tannin." (Tannin is the astringent compound in grape skins.)

* You should sniff the cork. "You should do nothing with the cork." It adds nothing to understanding or enjoying the wine.

* You must taste the wine before approving it. "Don't taste it, smell it three times, turn to the sommelier and say, 'OK.' It's all in the smell, capital letters. If you're not smelling fruit, you've got a problem. The only time I taste wine is to check its temperature."

* The more expensive the wine, the better it must be. "What's the best wine in a restaurant? Anything under $50. People think a $100 wine is twice as good as a $50 bottle, and there's the mistake."

Boom times on the stock market raised interest in--and spending on--wine, but any time is a good time to indulge, Zraly said. "When the economy is good, people drink. When the economy is bad, people drink more."

Zraly has been teaching wine appreciation since 1971 and has updated his book, "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course"-- which has sold 1.5 million copies--every year for 15 years.

During his eight-week, $800 wine-tasting course in New York, Zraly takes students through major types of wines and regions. They learn to analyze the aroma and taste of wine, isolating acidity, tannin and fruit.

Zraly darts around the cavernous conference room where he teaches on the 106th floor at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, cracking jokes and working the crowd like a motivational speaker or televangelist.

"I'm going to demand complete silence," he intones after the 200 or so students taste an unnamed white. "Any oak starting to come out?" Fifteen seconds later: "How's it holding up, still giving you pleasure?"

He jumps back and forth between wines No. 6 and No. 7, which turn out to be from Sonoma Valley and Long Island, respectively, comparing how long the flavors linger in the mouth.

Check out the subtlety of the fruit and acid of wine No. 8, he says. "This is a great, down-the-middle food wine," he says, striding among the rows of tables where his students face a breathtaking view of Manhattan.

No. 9 is a "Private Reserve." "What's that mean?" Zraly demands. "Legally, nothing!"

He continues: "Feel how soon that tannin comes in. Now the oak has overpowered the fruit." Verdict: still too young.

His students are an eclectic group, brought together by the desire not to be intimidated by wine or commit any oenological faux pas.

Jonathan Bassi, general manager of the Englewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., said he's in the class to achieve a comfort level in dealing with wine at work.

"I wanted to know what regions of wine to go for," said Joe Congiusta, who owns an auto body shop in Hillsdale, N.J. "I'm learning to find wines that cost $20 but taste like $100."

In a way, the wine class "has ruined things for me," said Suzanne Lamonte, who is drawing up a wine list for a bed-and-breakfast she's building on Long Island. "I've gone back to restaurants that I really liked at the time, and realized they're no big deal."


The casual drinker, Zraly said, should keep it simple. Just equate wines with milk, he counsels: The primary white grapes--riesling, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay--are like skim milk, whole and heavy cream. The same respectively for the three major red grapes--pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

That will help you pick a wine that goes with what you're eating: "skim milk" with fish for instance, or "heavy cream" with duck or lamb.

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