A few weeks ago, I had a chance to ask the world’s best-known wine teacher a question.
“Hey, Kevin Zraly,” I called to the bearded man who had been sitting two seats from me throughout the James Beard Awards at Lincoln Center in New York.
“What’s with you and Charlotte?”
The Beard awards usually go on for more than 3 hours. The minute the show ends, the audience stampedes en mass for the food stations. You don’t pause to chat.
But when I said “Charlotte,” Zraly paused. And grinned.
“Call me,” he said.
Last week, I called and asked again: Why are you so loyal to the Charlotte Wine & Food Weekend?
Zraly started the Windows on the World wine program, both at the restaurant that once crowned the World Trader Center and in wine seminars he’s taught for 36 years. He’s taught tens of thousands of people to love wine.
He’s smart, funny and famous, and he goes to wine events all over the country. He’s been coming to the every-other-year Charlotte Wine & Food Weekend, which took place last month, for more than 10 years.
Zraly has learned to like Charlotte so much, he even thinks about moving here. He grows grapes in New York state, but he dreams about trying it in North Carolina or Virginia.
About the wine festival: Charlotte doesn’t know what a great event it has, he said. First, “it’s quality vs. quantity.”
A lot of cities do really big wine events, with thousands of people. Charlotte’s wine celebration is smaller and more concentrated.
Plus, by only doing it every other year, Charlotte’s festival has kept the best in speakers, wine makers and volunteers.
“Charlotte does it well,” he said. “No one does a 1,000-point wine tasting. I’ve never seen it.”
The 1,000-point tasting has become a Charlotte trademark. It’s a tutored tasting of 10 wines that got perfect, 100-point scores. The ticket price of $375 limits the number of people who go, but that’s also why Zraly loves to lead it.
“That’s really my style,” he says. “I don’t think you can really have a good wine tasting with so many people. I have to change gears when I get (above) 100 people – I get into the entertainment side.”
Zraly, 61, considers himself first and always a teacher. He has a degree in education, and he’s actually certified to teach kindergarten through high school.
So on the other end of the price spectrum, Zraly loved leading a new Charlotte event, “The One-Hour Wine Expert.” It was only $35. Basically, Zraly picked six kinds of wine and said, “Drink this.”
It was a great entry class for younger wine drinkers, he says.
“Next time, what I would do – if they invited me back – is the Italian wine expert or the French wine expert.”
Invite you back? Gee, Kevin. I have a hunch they just might.