A Pourer's Tale
by Melissa Clark
Kevin Zraly, wine guru and sommelier supreme, is waving his arms wildly, doing his wine sediment shtick. We are on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, in a conference room of the Windows on the World complex. It is the fifth week of an eight week introductory wine course, and our teacher Kevin is skipping in front of the class, swooping a wine bottle over his head in a vivid re-enactment of its trip from the vineyards of France to the warehouses of Brooklyn. He shakes the bottle like a can of whipped cream, tosses it in the air, turns it on its head, and rolls it on the floor.
"And that's only what happens to it on the boat crossing the Atlantic," he says, sweat shining on his face from the effort. "You should see what they do to wine in the dock warehouses. You don't even want to know," he says, twirling the bottle like a baton.
"And so then when the waiter of whatever pricey restaurant the wine ends up in tip-toes to your table with the precious bottle cradled in his arms so as not to disturb the sediment, what do you think that's all about?" Kevin shouts, "Pretense! Some people think that in order to enjoy wine you have to go through a whole series of pomp and circumstance, but that's simply not true. It's like when they give you a cork to smell. So you smell it and it smells like a cork, so what? It's all just part of the show. But now you all know better!" he says, finally placing the wine back on a table.
"I'll take a little applause now," Kevin says, wiping his brow. The class responds heartily.
This kind of flamboyant performance is not unusual for Kevin's wine classes, and is one reason why they fill up so quickly. Most of the students in this class pay for the privilege, $575 each. I am attending the class as a pourer, and so for me and thirteen others, the class is free. But each session we must come in two hours early and stay one hour later, setting up and then cleaning up the room. During the class we jump up after every few glasses of wine to pour for the next batch, refill water glasses, and fetch bread.
The job is overall much more work than I suspected when I signed on, or, rather, applied for the position. You must fill out an application and send a resume before you are allowed the privilege of wiping orange juice pulp out of wine glasses, and setting twelve of them in front of each place setting. For 175 students, that works out to be a total of 2100 wine glasses per class. It is hard and tiring work, but all in all, it is a fair deal. I once divided the cost of the class into the number of hours we pourers worked; it came out to about $18.00 an hour, which is what waiters make catering. But you can't learn about grape varietals and acidity levels and the correct temperature for aging during a catering job. Nor can you watch as Kevin sings Louis Louis after class with a group of paying students surrounding him adoringly.
We pourers mentally divide the class into the worlds of us (the pourers) and them (the paying students). According to Kevin, the average paying student works in the neighborhood (Wall Street), is 33 years old, and makes upwards of $120K a year. The average pourer is about 28, works in the restaurant or food industry, and makes downwards of $25.00 an hour, usually without benefits. In this class, some of us are managers in good New York restaurants, some waiters, some food writers (myself), some chefs and culinary students, and then there are the two junior editors, both working at a popular woman's magazine that never runs articles about wine. We are a diverse lot compared to the paying students, who all begin to look the same, their pinstripe suits blending into one another -- especially after drinking the equivalent of 3 glasses of wine on an empty stomach during the tasting.
But, if there is one thing you can count on with Kevin, the wine you'll drinking will always be good. He likes to wow his students with expensive wines, and in the course of eight weeks, we tasted, amongst many others, a Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 1989 ($125/bottle), a Chateau La Lagune 1981 ($65/bottle), and a Corton-Charlemagne Bonneau du Martray 1988 ($125/bottle). Technically, pourers are supposed to spit out the wine into oversized styrofoam coffee cups after swirling it over our palates. During the pourer orientation Kevin held up a spittoon, and said, with a feeble attempt at solemnity, "I expect all of you to use these." Still, most of us gave it up after the first few classes. The truth is that you really can't taste a wine until it slides right down your throat. None of the paying students spit, and every week we carefully collect the empty cups after class, and then distribute them again the following week.
Despite his jovial, slightly intoxicated style of teaching, Kevin's class is extremely regimented. The doors open at precisely 5:45, when the room is ablaze with the jewel colors of the sunset bouncing off 2100 polished glasses. Pourers, neatly cloaked in yet unstained white lab coats, take their stations, each in front of an entrance to a row of tables, blocking people from entering out of turn. Kevin likes for everyone to be seated as they enter, filling each row before moving to the next. At precisely 6:00, even if people are still filing in, Kevin begins the class, spanning the globe with lectures about the wines of California and New York, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Notable absentees are South Africa, Australia, and Chile, all making long strides in wine making. These, he says, we will have to buy and taste for ourselves, evaluating them with the skills we've learned in his class.
In Zraly's class, you not only learn which vintners make which style wines and which grape varietals are used in which regions, but how to taste and enjoy wine. After each tasting he always asks: did you like it? hate it? why? In his own answers, Kevin never gives into "wine speak" -- the kind that espouses descriptions like "this wine has black cherry undertones, an herbaceous nose with notes of candle wax and cigar smoke, and a lush cranberry-apple-spice finish." He wants everyone in his class to appreciate good wine and to understand what makes it good.
It almost seems as though his secret mission is to take the snobbism out of the wine world- even going so far as to say that it is better for people to drink blush wines and wine coolers than not to drink wine at all. It is the most democratic approach to wine that I have ever heard. And, it is the right approach to use with a room full of impressionistic wine neophytes susceptible to blossoming into full fledged wine snobs. He has taken the pompous wind right out of our sails, creating an atmosphere where those who prefer white zinfandel feel comfortable clinking glasses with those drinking Puligny-Montrachet. For this, anyone who enjoys a glass of wine but doesn't want to talk about it, and anyone tired of listening to the wine buff's drone, should raise their glasses in thanks.
And not necessarily their wine glasses. As Kevin said on the very last day of class, "Is it over yet? I just can't wait to go have a beer."
For information on the Windows on the World wine course, call 914-255-1456.