Washington Life’s wine and spirits editor recounts her treasured, fleeting moments spent studying the grape at the top of the World Trade Center.
By Kelly A. Magyarics
Every Tuesday evening for two months in the spring of 2001, a group of budding oenophiles — myself included — tasted wine at the top of the world.
At least that’s what it felt like, as I stepped off the crowded elevator after a security check and dizzying ride to the 102nd floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I registered for Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine School because I had been contemplating a career change. After over five years in the training and support branch of the technology field, I woke up one morning and thought, “how did I get here?” An avid foodie, I learned to cook from Emeril Legasse, Mario Batali and the other chefs on The Food Network, and learning more about wine seemed to be a natural progression for any epicurean. After all, nothing can bring out the flavors and nuances of a dish like the right wine. On the flip side, the right bottle’s aromas and flavors sing in harmony when sipped alongside the right food. I decided that I wanted to, I needed to, taste, and learn, and taste some more. And I couldn’t think of a more qualified teacher than Kevin Zraly, or a more spectacular setting than the top of the World Trade Center.
I’ve always been the quintessential “type-A” personality and straight A student, so I left my job as Manager of Support for a midtown investment bank early each week, to take the E train to the World Trade Center stop. Once on the 102nd floor, I joined a few other regular students in line. We dubbed ourselves “the front row club”, and just had to get a seat in the coveted first row of that large conference room. Zraly is such a dynamic yet affable speaker, and if you were seated front and center there was a better chance of getting your question answered, or interacting with him during or after class.
During each class, we stared, sniffed, swirled and sipped, scribbled notes in our binder, and internalized indelible lessons about wine. “The first sip of wine is a shock to your taste buds,” Zraly would say, “so don’t judge a wine too prematurely.” “Look for balance in a good wine,” he would muse. “There shouldn’t bee too much, or not enough fruit, or acid, or tannin.” Though he praised age worthy German Rieslings and complex French white Burgundies, he’d also joke that “All white wines would be red if they could be.” (Interesting enough, all this knowledge stems from a man who is allergic to wine and has to take medicine after imbibing to prevent a reaction.)
Just about every class, Zraly would gesture to the windows and the view behind him to question, “Ladies and gentlemen, can you picture a more breathtaking setting in which to taste wine?”
I certainly could not. Just like I could never resist walking over to the floor-to-ceiling windows, almost pressing my nose against the class and peering down to the eerily silent city below.
Before I knew it, the eight-week course was over. But the seed was planted. In the summer of 2001, we moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where I launched my career as a wine educator, and wine and spirits writer. As one of the last students to have taken Zraly’s course at the top of the World Trade Center, I feel fortunate to this day, a decade later, to have been a part of this short-lived, but unquestionably life-changing, experience.
Now, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I think back to all that was lost that day in those towers. The rare, “priceless” bottles of wine in the restaurant (the Cellar in the Sky, as it was called,) turned out to be not so priceless after all, compared to what else was lost…including the servers and staff of Windows on the World—many of whom were close friends and colleagues of Zraly’s. But I will never, ever forget that incredible venue, or its views that stretched for miles and encouraged myself and my fellow students to change—perhaps our life paths and careers, or more simply our opinions about a beverage that is in its very essence designed to be enjoyed in the company of cherished friends and family.
A toast of gratitude then, on this tenth anniversary, to being able to share a bottle and clink glasses with someone you care about.
Footnote: This year, Kevin Zraly begins his 35th year of teaching the Windows on the World Wine School and his 40th year of teaching. Today the course is held at the Marriott Marquis Hotel (45th St. and Broadway, New York). The next course starts September 12 and runs for eight weeks.
In 2011, Zraly was presented with the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. With almost 20,000 graduates, his class was named “The Best Wine School” in New York City by New York Magazine.
The latest book version of his course, Kevin Zraly’s Complete Wine Course, was just released. Zraly has updated all of the material on vineyards in Austria, Hungary, Greece, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina. Zraly also included a new Best of the Best chapter, and more than twenty smart phone tags throughout the book that link to videos of Kevin talking about wine. You can order it on Amazon for $17.97.