Friday, December 19, 2014

APPELLATION Naoussa, Macedonia, Greece

The Sommelier Journal

August 31 2013

Catherine Fallis, MS

Greece is home to some of the world’s most interesting grape varieties, yet the wines they produce have never received much fanfare. Even visitors to the country may not venture beyond a simple local white with a dish of freshly caught fish on a warm afternoon—or realize that there’s a diverse and serious industry here. For over 4,000 years, the rich, spicy red wines of the relatively frigid Macedonia region, especially those of Naoussa, have been highly regarded. Legend has it that Semele, mother of Dionysus—the Greek god of wine and fertility—called the area home.

Established in 1972, the Naoussa appellation, which covers 1750 acres on the slopes of Mount Vermion, was Greece’s first. Though Preknadi, a freckled local white grape, is making a small comeback, vineyards here are planted almost exclusively to Xinomavro, a grape that yields earthy, juicy, savory, tannic, and acidic reds. Like Southern Italy’s Negroamaro, which translates as “black-bitter,” Xinomavro means “acid black.” Neither translation makes for a great selling point in the mainstream market; the pronunciation of the latter doesn’t help (The first half of the word sounds like “casino” without the “a”: k-SEE-noh.) But for connoisseurs of Italian reds, Naoussa is a natural alternative. Greek wine expert Nico Manessis calls the appellation “our Burgundy. We should not worry so much about the high acid and light color of our wines; we have grand cru potential here.” But given Xinomavro’s Nebbiolo-like bite and grip, Naoussa could as easily be compared to Piedmont.

Similar monovarietal and blended wines from nearby Amydeon, particularly Alpha Estate, are worth seeking out. Chateau Carras, on the Halkidiki Peninsula, was at one time considered Greece’s best producer, though its wines are not made with Xinomavro. Once isolated, Macedonia is now much easier to navigate, thanks to the Wine Roads of Northern Greece (, a tourist network of wineries, vineyards, natural and cultural landmarks, hotels, and restaurants. Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, snowbound mountain villages, kings’ tombs, and goddesses’ temples provide a stunning framework for understanding the history of Greek wine.

“Love begins from the stomach” is a famous saying here. Meze, an assortment of small plates, is served first: olives, fried goat cheese or batsos, dips like tzatziki and taramosalata, skewers of grilled meat, meatballs (keftedes), deep-fried calamari, lentil or pumpkin soup. The meal that follows is served family style, with platters of cheese, vegetables, salads, and fire-roasted or baked fish, game, and meats dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. Dandelion or other wild greens (horta), eggplant, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and fava beans are in abundance. Rustic, freshly baked “dirty bread”  topped with olive oil and oregano is everywhere. The locals fill up on produce; take small, infrequent bites of the rich cheeses and meats; smoke like chimneys; and constantly sip wine. The local wine is ideal of course, its savory notes pairing beautifully as its rich tannins and acids cleanse and refresh the palate. But how does Greek wine work with other types of cuisine?

Haroula Spinthiropoulou is an agronomist, the owner of Argatia Winery and the consultant for Kir-Yianni Estate, and an expert on the Naoussa appellation. According to him, “Xinomavros can pair with any cuisine from around the world. Naoussa wines go very well with meats that are barbecued or served in sauces based on peppers and onions, as well as with dishes containing mushrooms, such as risotto.” Adds Markus Stolz, owner of Greek-wine website, “These wines have an amazing ability to age gracefully for many decades, much like top Bordeaux. The price points [about $12-36 in the U.S. market] are very attractive compared to top Pinot Noirs or Nebbiolos, the food-pairing ability is there, and the harsh tannin structure in young wines mellows after 5-10 years of bottle age.” The bottom line is that customers who are looking for something that will enhance the enjoyment of their meal will appreciate Naoussa, and I highly recommend it for the bottle list, though I would not sell it by the glass in most instances.

Naoussa is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which is Greece’s highest quality level; below it is the regional Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) designation, similar to Italy’s IGT. PDO replaced two previous categories, OPAP and OPE, bringing the country’s classification system more in line with EU standards, which basically consist of wines of quality with an origin (from the vineyard to the regional level) and wines with no origin. PDO and PGI therefore fall into the quality-wines category.

Naoussa PDO wines are made in dry, medium-dry, and medium-sweet styles; only the dry reds are exported to the United States. From the town of Naoussa, one can see the Gulf of Thermaikos, the city of Thessaloniki—Greece’s fashion capital—and the Halkidiki Peninsula. The climate, aspect, and soils vary across the appellation, so its 18 producers are able to present Xinomavro in a range of lights. On a visit in 2005, many of the wines I tasted both in Naoussa and at a wine fair in Thessaloniki had biting tannins and acids; their rusticity would not be acceptable by today’s standards. Most of the current releases are much softer—though they still have the bright, juicy acidity and grip that make them so appealing with food. Explains Spinthiropoulou, “In recent years, several producers, like Thymiopoulos, have begun turning toward modern-style wines that are easier drinking; they do not necessarily remind you of the classic Naoussas. Then we have wineries that fall somewhere between the modern and classic styles, like Kir-Yianni Estate.”

Hiram Simon, principal of California-based importers WineWise and The Vienna Wine Company, is “pleased that we have sold Naoussa wines to a wide array of restaurants and wine bars in both northern and southern California. One well-regarded restaurant in the East Bay has plowed through more than 30 cases of Kir-Yianni Ramnista in the past 18 months alone. Vaeni, which dominates production in the region, can be numbered amongst the top co-ops in the world, offering really fine and well-aged bottles at absurdly low prices. We believe that, once the wider wine community discovers the uniquely fine quality of Xinomavro as grown in Naoussa, they will embrace it as one of the world's truly rare bargains in the realm of high-class, ageworthy red wine.”

key producers

Alpha Estate
2nd klm Amyndeon, Ag. Panteleimon
53200 Amyndeon
Importer: Diamond Importers

Argatia Winery
P.O. Box 6
59200 Rodohori
Importer: Sonata Wine

59200 Stemimachos
Importer: Terlato Wines International

59200 Naoussa
Importer: WineWise

Domaine Karydas
59200 Ana Gastra
Importer: Diamond Importers

Estate Chrisouhoou
Strantza Naoussas
59200 Naoussa
Importer: Nestor Imports

Importer: Hellas Import Ltd

Kir-Yianni Estate
59200 Naoussa
Importer: WineWise

Thymiopolous Vineyards
59200 Naoussa
Importer: Athenee Importers & Distributors

Episkopi Naoussas
59200 Anthemia
Importer: WineWise

outstanding recent releases

Alpha Estate Syrah-Xinomavro Axia, Florina PDI 2009 $17
I first visited this estate when the vines were still very young. Even then, the wines—a blend of local and international grapes— impressed me (see also Winery Spotlight, Feb. 28, 2012). This one has a dark, sultry, Rhône-ish nose: black cherry, white flowers, vanilla, toast, smoked meat, bacon, and an earthy, tarry minerality. It is medium-bodied, with notes of brown mushroom and bright fruit, including rhubarb; high tannins (decant or age it); and a lively, cleansing finish.

Boutari Grande Reserve 2007 $20
Representing a tradition of long aging before release (two years in barrel, two in bottle), the Grand Reserve is mellow—almost laid back—with notes of cherry, red apple, heirloom tomato, spearmint, licorice, fennel, black olive, cheese rind, and maple. Tannins are softly chewy, and the finish is tart.

Diamantakos Xinomavro 2007 $36
Very compelling, with notes of black cherry, mulberry, cassis, fig, raisin, mushroom,  turned earth, saddle leather, and sweet oak spice. Plush on the palate, with an intense vein of earthiness. Tannins then proceed to dominate, while generous acids provide a long, tart finish.

Diamantakos Preknadi PDI 2011 $TK
This Preknadi came as a bit of a surprise. Expecting a crisp, citrusy, and deeply flavored white comparable to Kir-Yianni’s Samaropetra—a Roditis-Sauvignon Blanc blend from Amyndeon—I found instead a unique yellow-gold wine with notes of slivered almond, lemon curd, quinine, poppy-seed bagel, hay, dried chamomile flowers, and arugula. It was balanced and creamy and had a tart, dry, chalky finish.

Domaine Karydas 2009 $26
From the Ano Gastro vineyard—a jewel in Naoussa’s crown—this is a longtime favorite of mine. It captures the essence of the appellation perfectly with its vibrant, Syrah-like dark-berry fruit, as well as oregano, Fernet Branca, earth, and black-licorice notes; understated grip; and juicy, mouthwatering acidity.

Estate Chrisouhoou Xinomavro 2008 $16
From an estate in Strantza on the southeastern slopes of Mt. Vermion comes this inviting, perfumed wine. It has pretty cherry, strawberry, and sangria notes, along with shiitake, bacon, mocha, and cedar. It is medium bodied, with rich but fine tannins and pleasantly forward acidity.

Katogi & Strofilia Averoff Naoussa PDO 2008 $TK
With a bit of age, this wine shows an incredibly complex range of flavors: cherry pie, strawberry compote, sarsparilla, red and black licorice (Italian or Australian), singed meat, mushrooms browned in butter, dried herbs, and soft cedar. On the palate, it’s quite round and supple—almost plump—at first, with notes of cherry cola and sundried tomato. Then, it turns lean and austere, with merciless grip and drying tannins assuaged only by continual bursts of wild strawberry.

Kir-Yianni Rosé Sec Sparkling Akakies Amyndeon PDO 2011 $TK
Soft and subdued on the nose, with telltale varietal aromas of cranberry, strawberry, plum, and crushed oregano. Chalky and yeasty autolytic notes add complexity to the more muscular palate¸ and the mousse is very fine.

Kir-Yianni Xinomavro Ramnista 2009 $21
Kir-Yianni translates as “Master John” in reference to Yianni Boutaris, who worked with his brother Konstantinos at the family company, Boutari, until 1996. Today they make some of Naoussa’s best wines, including this one from the Ramnista Vineyard. It is earthy, smoky, and meaty, displaying notes of dark chocolate, strawberry, mint, thyme, oregano, and basil on a full, almost powerful body, with gripping tannins and vibrant acidity.

Thymiopoulos Vineyards Uranos 2009 $29
Here the Xinomavro speaks loud and clear. This wine has it all—red fruit, orange rind, thyme, sage, sundried tomato, some cedar; a sinewy, chewy quality; slightly gripping grape and oak tannins; and, to finish it off, a gushing natural acidity.

Thymiopoulos Vineyards Young Vines 2011 $15
Pretty, Pinot Noir-like notes of strawberry jam, cherry, cranberry, orange zest, button mushroom, and white flowers, plus only-in-Naoussa notes of red licorice, thyme, sage, daikon, fennel seed, and sundried tomato, give this wine a feistiness that belies its elegant presentation and contrasts with its unique, minty finish.

Vaeni 2007 $9
This is one of Naoussa’s more delicate offerings, with notes of sour cherry, strawberry, and white mushroom, plus a streak of cured meats. It is initially soft and light; then the tannins get more firm, especially on the long, flavorful, tart finish.

Planet Grape’s popular and entertaining speaker and host for corporate and private events, Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess, is also a professional Champagne sabreuse, a Contributing Editor of Sommelier Journal, the San Francisco Champagne Examiner for, the drinks columnist for Basil Magazine, a frequent contributor to CNBC’s and Nation’s Restaurant News, a French Wine Scholar, and an instructor at the San Francisco Wine School. Like her on Facebook at and follow her on Twitter @planetgrape.

© Copyright 2014 The SOMM Journal

APPELLATION Montepulciano, Italy

The Sommelier Journal

May 31 2013

Catherine Fallis, MS

The Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) known as Montepulciano lies east of Montalcino across the Val d’Orcia in the Tuscan province of Siena, specifically the Chianti subzone Colli Senesi. From the eponymous hilltop town, one looks down over the vineyards, most on eastern- or southeastern-facing slopes, toward the Val di Chiana, named for the Chianina breed of beef cattle featured in the region’s famous bistecca alla Fiorentina.  The appellation’s remaining vineyards are located in the hills surrounding the village of Valiano, across the autostrada and the plains. Etruscan King Porsenna is said to have founded Montepulciano in 500 B.C., when it was known as Mons Politicus.

 The breathtakingly beautiful village is studded with architectural and historical gems. Walking along the centro Corso, you’ll see stunning palazzi once belonging to the likes of Avignonesi, Cocconi, and Del Monte-Contucci as well as such masterpieces as the Renaissance-era Tempio di San Biagio, the Gothic Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone, and the Torre di Pulcinella, a medieval clocktower with a whimsical wooden figurine still striking out the time. The Museo Civico displays a range of Etruscan and Roman artifacts including a kylix, or wine cup, to Caravaggio. The Piazza Grande, anchored at one end by the former home of Renaissance humanist and poet Angelo Poliziano, is the village’s focal point. All the while, seductive aromas of rubinia (acacia) and ginestra (Scotch broom) flowers, the gently earthy fragance of the countryside, and mouthwatering aromas of food fill the air. Lunch or dinner may include a panino con la porchetta with a glass of Rosso, pici (a local pasta) with duck and a spot of Vino Nobile, or crostata of pecorino and Cosce di Monaca jam alongside Vin Santo.

As in Montalcino, Sangiovese gets riper here than it does in most parts of Chianti. The region’s key grape (known locally as Montepulciano Blackthorn as well as Prugnolo Gentile) comprises a minimum 70% of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, with the remainder going to any Tuscan grape, including the Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot imported here after World War II (though white varieties can represent no more than 5% of the blend). One popular option is red Mammalo; producers say they like the lightly floral scent it brings (it’s named for a type of violet). 

Vino Nobile must be aged two years, at least a year of which must be spent in oak; Riserva wines require three years. Minimum alcohol is set at 12.5% (13% for Riserva), but the common range now is 13.5-14.5%. Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, introduced in 1989, contains a similar blend, offering sommeliers and consumers a taste of the region at a lower price tag. Produced all over Tuscany, the sweet Vin Santo of Montepulciano, a DOC, is said to be the richest of all. In 1550, Sante Lancerio, wine steward to Pope Paul III, recorded that his holiness preferred the wines of Montepulciano, bringing to mind two questions: what kind of wines does Pope Francis prefer, and how does one sign up to be his sommelier?

Vino Nobile, or “Wine of the Nobles,” was officially born in the 15th century, when the aforementioned Angelo Poliziano took up residence in the court of Lorenzo dei Medici. It gained notoriety with aristocrats, and was dubbed the “King of All Wines” by poet Francesco Redi late in the 17th century. Shortly thereafter, King William III of England became a steady customer. In the first half of the 20th century, the wine retained its reputation as a rich, firm, well-structured Italian red; Fanetti Vino Nobile won a gold medal in 1937 at the Grand Prix de Paris, and DOC status was granted in 1966.

But by the time arrived on the market as Italy’s first DOCG import in 1983, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano had been cast aside, residing in the shadows of Tuscany’s highly decorated Brunello di Montalcino (which was granted DOCG status earlier, in 1980, but has longer minimum aging requirements); its soaring Super Tuscans; and its best known populist wine, Chianti. Variable quality was certainly an issue. Many bottlings were no better than simple Chianti, and until the DOCG rules took effect, up to 28% of the grapes allowed in the blend were white. In addition, as pressures mounted to stay competitive and get high scores, some producers began ramping up their use of oak. As elsewhere in the world, barriques were brought in to help improve quality and tame tannins—but the wines often lost their unique character in the process. 

I recall a trip I took to the region in 2001. Upon arriving at a tasting with a very well-known producer, I was a bit agitated, jet lagged, and hot; after being presented with a lineup of wines that could have just as easily been from the New World, I got up and said, “If I had wanted to taste Napa Cabs, I wouldn’t have flown halfway across the world to do so. Don’t you have anything more Italian?” Yes, it was ungracious of me, but I was not alone in being disappointed by releases that had spent six months in American oak and showed notes of coconut along with incredibly drying tannins. 

Luckily, over the past decade, we have witnessed a global movement away from the points-driven style of winemaking marked by excessive oak. The use of light oak, no oak, and even cement eggs has not only been revived in Europe but is taking hold in the New World as well. Formed in 1965, the 70-member Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ( continues to support the return to the top of the quality scale. 

Having completed the cycle from neutral to extreme oak and back again, most producers now see the barrique as nothing more than as a tool to enhance, not dominate, their wines. As Thomas Francioni, event manager for the Consorzio, observes, “During the past few years, we’ve experienced a real revolution in the use of oak for aging. Several producers have confirmed that in the 1990s, all the enologues convinced them to use more new oak in keeping with market trends. But starting with the 2004-2005 harvest, the producers decided to have more fruit—the fruit of the Sangiovese berries!—in their wines and to forget the big oaked flavor. Of course we still have modern styles as well as old styles, but both are going in only one direction—toward quality and identity! Tasting lots of wines of the area, I really find in the past five vintages—’06 to ’10 more and more similarity in terms of the expression of different soils, trellising systems, and winemaking processes. It gives me an extraordinary emotion when I recognize the area of Vino Nobile from the glasses. Our trend now is to produce lighter wines with less aggressive tannins, so that you want to drink another glass after the first!”

The DOCG blend has officially been adjusted as well. Some producers were illegally using 100% Sangiovese, or Sangiovese blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as was done in other parts of Tuscany. Today this is allowed and is common practice. It is also allowable to make a Vino Nobile, à la Chianti Classico, with no white grapes at all. Finally, Montepulciano is now going green: 12 of its 74 wineries are certified Biodynamic so far, and a movement toward renewable energy is afoot. 

It is obvious that Vino Nobile has found its roots. Like the warm Mediterranean air at sunset, its wines are warm, sexy, and softly spicy. They are beautifully expressive of their individual terroirs, their local grapes, and their regional culture. They are elegant, complex, understated, and full of intrigue, like an alluring perfume that is detected only if you lean in close. Though it has taken a great bit of effort, the wines reflect the Renaissance concept of sprezzatura—they have a seemingly spontaneous style. They speak of a romance worth rekindling.

key producers

Avignonesi, S.r.l.
Via Colonica, 1
53045 Valiano di Montepulciano
Importer: TK

Azienda Agricola La Ciarliana
Via Ciarliane, 31
53040 Gracciano di Montepulciano
Importer: Maximum Wine Company

Azienda Agricola Poliziano
Via Fontago, 1
53040 Montepulciano Stazione
Importer: Dalla Terra Winery Direct

Azienda Agricola Salcheto
Via di Villa Bianca, 15
53045 Montepulciano
Importer: Sherbrooke Cellars

Cantine Dei
Villa Martiena
53045 Montepulciano
Importer: Sherbrooke Cellars

Podere Il Macchione
Via Provinciale, 18
53045 Montepulciano
Importer: David Vincent Selection

Podere Le Bèrne
Importer: TK

Tenuta di Gracciano della Seta
Via Umbria, 59/61
53045 Montepulciano
Importer: TK

outstanding recent releases

Avignonesi Vin Santo di Montepulciano Occhio di Pernice, 375ml 1998 $230 
Rich, viscous, and intense, with notes of dried raisin, fig, caramel, and apple pie, this amber dessert wine is made from 100% air-dried Prugnolo Gentile with an average vine age of 18 years. It’s fermented naturally in cask, then sealed under wax to age another 10 years.

Dei Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $30
This elegant, stylish, full-bodied red has savory notes of dried fennel seed, sage, and lavender along with very lush, rich, generous cherry and plum. Lively acidity intensifies the rather gripping tannins, so decant for aeration and serve in a larger stem.

Il Macchione Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2009 $28
Pretty, high-toned raspberry fruit—along with tomato, basil, leather, mocha, espresso bean, and very subtle vanilla—is the highlight of this wine, which starts out rather well behaved, proving round, firm, and structured. As the tannins unfold, however, it becomes absolutely feisty, gripping and drying the palate without shame; acidity serves to intensify the sensation at first, but then manages to refresh and cleanse the palate. Very intriguing. 

La Ciarliana Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $30
With notes of strawberry jam, cherry, prune, fig, brown mushroom, sandalwood, a bit of brett, and a Kirsch-like richness at its core, this wine shows a more traditional style. The tannic structure is too, with a slight dryness on the finish, but lively acidity finds its way in to cleanse the palate, and exotic spice sensations come out on the finish.

Le Bèrne Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $34
No wonder I am falling in love with Vino Nobile all over again. This medium-bodied wine is pure Mediterranean heaven, with suggestions of sundried tomato, oil-cured black olive, cherry, orange rind, quince, sage, verbena, and very, very subtle cedar and vanilla. It is immediately soft and plump; then tannins pop in to give support, picking up toward the finish before acid comes forth for balance. The finish is long, with highlights of black licorice and fennel.

Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Asinone 2008 $45
Very sleek, smooth, and polished, with deep, dark berry fruit; earthy aged Sumatra and balsamic; and mocha, licorice, and truffle. Rich and full on the palate, with full-frontal tannins and lively, balancing acidity, this wine would do well with some age and/or aeration. But the quality is remarkable and true to its roots onceagain.

Salcheto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $26
The soft, sweet floral and woodsy perfumes of spring in the countryside come to mind with a sip of this wine, along with raspberry, cherry, fig, green olive, peppermint tea, salumi, mushroom, and tar. Very appealing in an earthy sort of way, with attractive but not forward fruit, it has just the right balance of acids and tannins to work beautifully with local specialties.

Tenuta di Gracciano della Seta Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $28
Very elegant and lithe, with notes of sour cherry, sundried tomato, sage, red licorice, violet, dark chocolate mousse, and cedar. Tannins are fine and beautifully integrated; the finish is long and mouthwatering. This wine has the balance of a prima ballerina.

Planet Grape’s popular and entertaining speaker and host for corporate and private events, Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess, is also a professional Champagne sabreuse, a Contributing Editor of Sommelier Journal, the San Francisco Champagne Examiner for, the drinks columnist for Basil Magazine, a frequent contributor to CNBC’s and Nation’s Restaurant News, a French Wine Scholar, and an instructor at the San Francisco Wine School. Like her on Facebook at and follow her on Twitter @planetgrape.

© Copyright 2014 The SOMM Journal

INTERVIEW Kevin Zraly, Windows on the World Wine School, New York City & New Paltz, NY

The Sommelier Journal

April 15 2013

Catherine Fallis MS

In the two years I spent at Windows on the World as wine-school coordinator and cellar master, Kevin Zraly taught me so much about wine—the business, the people, the culture, the beauty of it all. He taught me that persistence pays off, that when people are laughing they are learning, and that a young woman in her 20s could begin a career in the wine industry after all. Much of my professional life—creating wine programs,  teaching, doing consumer and corporate events, writing—has been greatly influenced by this incredibly gifted yet incredibly humble man.

In 1993, Zraly was the third-ever recipient of the James Beard Award  for Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year; in 2011, he was the first wine professional to earn the Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet no one would ever call him lucky. In one five-year period, his house burned to the ground, his daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, he battled cancer (though today he is fine)—and then there was 9/11, which has had a profound impact on him and his family.

It is not every day that I make a grown man cry. I hadn’t been looking forward to asking Zraly about the tragedy—and when I did, it was worse than I expected. His voice shook and he gasped for air before steeling himself to continue. It was agonizing for me to be so close to his pain in those moments. Later, while transcribing our discussion, I was close to tears again—for Kevin, for my fond memories at Windows on the World, for all the lives that were lost, and for the grieving families that had to go on, that still do, with their own memories forever etched in their hearts and souls.
Catherine Fallis, MS

What impact did the Woodstock Festival have on your career path, and who were some early influences?

In August of ’69, I was 19 years old. It was because of Woodstock that I went upstate. That was in Sullivan County; my friends were going to college over in Ulster County. So I went with them. By September I had enrolled in the state-university system and I got a job as a waiter at the DePuy Canal House.
John Novi was the owner and chef of the DePuy Canal House. He had been open six months and had just received a four-star rating from New York Times restaurant critic Craig Clairborne and his entourage—chefs Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin. So Novi, who still operates on weekends, is getting ready to retire and was an early influence on me; I lucked out in finding this restaurant to work at. I was there to get beer money, but all of a sudden I had to put together the wine list—which I still have, by the way. It’s painted on slate. The first wines were all French except for one Asti Spumante and one German Liebfraumilch. I started putting California and New York wines on the second list.
When I was an altar boy, my parish priest, Father Matarazzo—who is still one of my closest friends—was a huge influence. He is at a church on 65th and Lexington. He’s is retired. My public-speaking abilities came from him. He was a great orator; he gave great sermons, and he always told me, “Kevin, it should never be more than six minutes, and never use notes.” I was ten years old. Then he would say, “What did you think of the homily?” so I had to start listening better! That whole connection between wine and religion was very powerful for me. So when I first got involved with wine at 19, the imprint was already there. In that sense, the church and Jesus were also an influence.

Did we just go from Woodstock to Jesus?

Come on, Jesus would have fit right in at Woodstock! So it was music first. The number-one thing in a sommelier’s life should be more than wine. For me, first is music, including theater. Second is sports. Third is wine, which pays for number one and two.
Early influences would also take me to Windows on the World and a new mentor—[late author and Château Prieuré-Lichine owner] Alexis Lichine. When we opened the restaurant in 1976, there was a financial crisis not only in New York City but also France. I was instructed to “put together the biggest and best wine list New York had ever seen. And don’t worry about how much it costs.” I contacted Lichine and off to Bordeaux we went. It was a fantasy world: “Okay, I’ll take 10 cases of this 1945, five cases of this 1900.” They needed the cash. Alexis Lichine was a Renaissance man. He had Russian, French, and American passports. During World War II he was part of the U.S. intelligence community, like Julia Child and Peter Sichel.

Was there one particular wine that made you realize that you would never be a stockbroker?

I was asked many times by many major companies to become a stockbroker in the early days of Windows, because they loved the way I sold wine, and they thought if I could do that, I could sell stocks. When I was 20, one of my best friends to this day, Peter Bienstock, a Harvard-educated lawyer, would come to the Canal House and bring his own wines. He had a house that was built in 1650 and was renovating it. I would be working at the restaurant and he brought in a Burgundy from the 1940s. When I smelled that wine, it was a Eureka moment. It was all in the combination of John Novi saying to me we needed a wine list now that we had a four-star rating and Peter sharing his wines. It wasn’t just that wine; it was many wines. He is actually still the lawyer for the preeminent wine store Sherry-Lehmann in New York City .

By the way—and this is very important—when I started studying wine in the early ’70s, you only studied French wine. It was probably easier to become a Master of Wine 40 years ago than it is today. You had to be able to tell the difference between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a Chinon. The only other thing was a smattering of German whites. I have some of the original wine lists from the 21 Club and the Four Seasons; they were all French. That is important for sommeliers to understand. In today’s world, it is extremely difficult to be a sommelier.

About two years ago, my friend and wine educator Robin Kelley O’Connor and I took a trip literally around the world. We went to 15 countries in 365 days; we went to 100 wine regions and 400 appellations within those regions, tasting over 6,000 wines. I was doing that for an update on the book, and thank goodness my publisher paid for it. What did I learn from that? That this is the golden age for wine.

Recently, in Wine Spectator, Matt Kramer wrote that he was not sure this is the golden age—but that is why I took the trip, to see for myself. That is the good news. The bad news for sommeliers is how much more they have to know. The other bad news is that, for example, at Sherry-Lehmann there are 6,000 SKUs. How do you manuever that? What kind of wine list do you write today? It was so easy in the old days. You just did your French wines, a few Germans, and maybe a few Californians.

What was it like backpacking through Europe and how was it different than hitchhiking across America? Looking back, what role do you think these trips played in helping to form your unique teaching style and writing voice?

Do your remember Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”: “They’ve all gone to look for America?” Or the movie Easy Rider? That was the motivation, partly, to go to California. Hitchhiking across the United States was a fantastic experience. I was 21 years old. I couldn’t go until I was 21 because that was the drinking age in California. In New York you could drink at 18, so I was already teaching a class when I was 20, in 1971. I was teaching about California wines but I couldn’t go there and try them. So in the summer of 1972, when I had no money—which is a recurring theme in my life—I hitchhiked, and made appointments, by letter, to visit all of the wineries. I wasn’t going out there to hang out—I was there to learn about wine.

“Unique” teaching style—thank you. That is polite. I was scared to death of teaching because I didn’t know what I was talking about in those early days. When you can say to somebody that you’ve been to the winery, it changes everything. To be with the Cazes family at Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac or the Mondavi family in Napa—it’s a continuation of meeting these people and seeing them again 20 years later that is definitely important. I find that the winemakers are so much more down to earth than the wine writers. August Sebastiani would sit there, back when I was 21, and he’d be drinking his wine out of a rocks glass. Today we talk about how we have to have Riedel. As a writer, you want to see it firsthand.

How did you find yourself working in the World Trade Center?

So, I’m at the Canal House in 1970. I start teaching wine. Then I go to California. Then I come back—this is 40 years ago—and I want to teach an accredited wine course at New Paltz State University. My hair was as long as your hair is now. The administration actually asked me to leave. They said, “Why are you here? Of course we’re not going to do an accredited wine program in a state university.
We have enough problems with marijuana!” Those were pretty much their exact words. I learned something from my family, primarily my mother, that it is okay to be politely brazen; as long as you are polite about it, you can go a little further. I went back and they again asked me to leave. Finally I went back one more time and they finally said, “Listen, if you can find a state university that teaches an accredited wine course we’ll consider it.” Well, guess where that was? Cornell. Cornell, though an Ivy League school, is part of the state-university system, and Dr. Vance Christian had started his wine course in 1971. In 1973, I got it passed and taught the first, and only, accredited wine course in the system as a junior teaching seniors. That helped me pay my way through college. There was no silver spoon; there was no money from my family. They just didn’t have the resources.

Okay, so now I’m teaching this class and I graduate college and it’s time to explore Europe. I took Icelandic Airlines, $99 round trip, to Reykjavik and ended up in Luxembourg. I spent almost a year going around Europe, making appointments. It was an amazing experience. I had two suits with me and stayed in youth hostels for $2.50 a night. I can tell you exactly where the one in Bordeaux is, and the one in Dijon—you know, they are still there. The only other thing I had was a Eurail pass.
I met Eddie Osterland, an American who was studying wine at the University  of Bordeaux.  We became fast friends and traveled around Bordeaux together, visiting all the great châteaux. Eventually, he became the first American Master Sommelier. His daughter is in New York, and I just signed her up for the wine class.

So I came back to the States, and I’m living in this little town of High Falls, and really feeling strange. My friends were saying, “All Kevin does is speak in French.” I was always talking about wine. That’s when I knew it was time to go to the city. I read an ad in the Beverage Media  that said, “Salesman wanted. 450 new accounts. New York City, Rockland County, Westchester County.” It was The Charmer-Sunbelt Group, and they hired me.

That’s another story for another time. I’ll tell you about those 450 accounts that didn’t exist. But one person gave me a piece of paper and said, “Go see Barbara Kafka,” who at that time was one of the consultants for  the restaurant at the World Trade Center. “See if you can get into that account and sell wine.” Kafka didn’t want to see me.  And I just sat there for weeks, on the 18th floor of One World Trade Center, waiting to see her. Waiting for Godot, waiting for Barbara Kafka—same thing. Finally, she did see me. And I’ll just cut to the chase. She said, “Why are you here?” and I said, “I work for Charmer and I am here to sell you wines and help you with your wine list.” She said, “Who the fuck are you?” If you met her, you’d understand. After about an hour, she realized that I knew wine and introduced me to Joe Baum, the creator of Windows on the World.

What was working for him like?

They happened to be looking for—and this is important for sommeliers—a young American. Joe was so far ahead of his time. I’m writing a screenplay about him. He didn’t want to call anybody a “sommelier” because he did not want any French connotations whatsoever. The term was “cellar master.” And it stayed that way for 25 years.

When I got the job, I had just turned 25. Joe put me charge of the entire wine program. He actually wanted me to run the bars as well. I would’ve been dead by now. I said, “No, I’m a wine guy,” and he said, “OK, just do the wine list.” I asked, “how many cellar masters can I have?” He said, “Excuse me?” I reworded the question: “How many assistants can I have?” And he responded, “None—you’re it.” That is where I had to make all of the captains cellar masters. Remember all the trainings we used to do with the captains and waiters? A lot of them went into the business, did you know? Over 100 former Windows staffers went into the wine business, like you, importer Michael Skurnik, and teacher and author Andrea Robinson. So my job was to get everybody involved in wine; the only downside was that so many of them wanted my help to go into the wine business. But at that point, I felt they had given 150%, so why not? I helped.

What were your responsibilities for in the other World Trade Center outlets, such as the City Lights Bar, the Hors d’Oeuvrerie/Greatest Bar on Earth, and Cellar in the Sky/Wild Blue?

Anywhere on the 107th floor, also downstairs in the Market Bar and Dining Room. At one time, the company controlled everything in the World Trade Center, from coffee and hamburgers to Windows on the World. Back then, in the mid-1970s, it was a $50-million-plus company. Jacques Pépin worked with us at the very beginning; so did James Beard. So one day I’m selling wine for Charmer—selling nothing, by the way—and the next day I’m sitting with Jacques Pépin, James Beard, Joe Baum, and Barbara Kafka shooting the shit, you know? I remember Beard telling me about how he used to teach the wait staff at the Four Seasons. I think if there is a word you could use about this, it was magical!. The magic of John Novi, the magic of Joe Baum, and the magic of their restaurants.
The Cellar in the Sky was another way that Joe Baum was ahead of the curve when it came to wine and food. How many people back in 1977—and it was thought of four, maybe five years earlier—would design a 32-seat concept where the wine was chosen first?! Remember when you put together the menus? Every two weeks, we had to choose five wines and then we would take them to the chef to go with a seven-course meal! Today, it is the reverse for most sommeliers; now the chefs tell you, “Here’s the food, you put the wine with it.” It is easier the other way around: “Here are the wines; let’s talk about the food.” The Cellar in the Sky existed all the way up to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. When we reopened in 1996, we changed the location but kept the same format. When chef Michael Lomonaco took over the kitchen, he wanted to have his own style of restaurant, which he deserved, and it became Wild Blue, though it still had a wine theme.

What was it like in the heyday of Wall Street? What kind of wines were you selling to the traders and stockbrokers?

It wasn’t just Wall Street—it was called the World Trade Center. That’s where all the shipping companies were, the freight companies. They would start working at 4 a.m.; noon was their cocktail hour. So the three-martini lunches were real, and continued on until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. That place was packed. We didn’t serve breakfast at that time. But we served lunch and dinner, and there were lines to get in. 1989-1991, those were really good years for the economy. Everybody was celebrating. If they closed a good deal, they would celebrate at Windows. Our wine prices were so low that they would spend a tremendous amount of money. Unfortunately, what they bought was probably based on price more than on what they knew about wine. It was a little bit of the Wild West: they had the money. We were a short walk from Wall Street. And they loved coming up and depleting our wine cellar.

How did your role change over time?

From 1976 to 1981, I was the cellar master. A busboy who became a captain and then a manager, Ray Wellington, took over as cellar master and I was hired by Hilton International (which ran Windows on the World) as international wine director. It was a fascinating time in my life because I went around the world with Hilton and also kept the title of wine director at Windows on the World until September 11.  In 1979, Hilton International was the first hotel chain  to create an American wine program outside of the United States. I literally placed Robert Mondavi’s hand into the hand of Chuck Bell, Hilton International’s president. That is how we got started. I helped get American wines into hotels and restaurants in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and others. The only wines being exported up to that time were the big ones, like Gallo. So I feel I played a little part in the movement to get American wines into the global market. After our success, all the other major hotel chains followed suit.

Did you invent the sliding scale for wine markups that you popularized at Windows on the World? Do you think it’s still applicable today?

I presented the first wine list to Joe Baum with prices that I thought were very reasonable. Do you know what he said to me? He said, “Here’s the Cornell method. It’s what I learned at the hotel school. Double the price you paid for it and add a dollar. So if it costs us $4, we’re gonna sell it for $9.” Double it plus a dollar. Even with that, Joe is underappreciated for everything he did. We worked together to maintain pricing. When Hilton International came in as partner and wanted to raise prices, Joe said, “I’d rather sell two bottles of wine at $20 than one bottle at $40.” And within three years, we were selling millions of dollars’ worth of wine. As the market changed years later, I created the progessive wine list, which had higher prices for the lower-priced wines and lower markups on the higher-priced wines.

Everyone in the industry knows you lost not only a restaurant but a number of colleagues on 9/11. Have the ensuing years brought you any perspective on the tragedy?

I was in White Plains today; I just drove back to New Paltz to talk with you. I was with a fellow named Glenn Vogt. Glenn was the last general manager at Windows. He was there that day. He was driving down the West Side Highway and got out of his car and ran in to try to go up the elevator and help his employees. We sat down and talked for hours. I don’t know how to answer that question. You’ve had your own tragedies. You’ve had your own traumas. Everyone handles them differently. That’s part one. And there will always be a lingering pain. It will never go away. We were actually discussing today how his wife and children, my wife and children, were affected and still are to this day. I have four children, and two of them were severely affected by September 11. Somebody should do a whole story about the children of 9/11, whether their parents did or didn’t make it out. Is there a new perspective to the tragedy? I live it every day. So I’m not exactly sure what the answer is. September 11 set me back physically, emotionally. I got physically sick. It was a bad time. It still is. A year and a half later, my daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. Then the year after that my house burned down, totally. It’s gone. And there is more we are dealing with. Much more. I try to keep my optimism high, and I’ve just finished writing my soon-to-be released autobiography, called A Glass Half Full.

In what is still a very male-dominated field, you had no issues with hiring young women to work with you at Windows on the World, myself included. Was there a particular influence somewhere along the line that inspired you to do this?

Catherine, I love women. That’s number one. Actually, a lot of my friends in high school were women whom I’m still in touch with. And a lot of people who worked there, like Andrea Robinson and Rebecca Chapa, and Jan Petrow, who has been working for Vineyard Brands for 30 years—she was the first woman to work in the wine cellar. But all this goes back to Joe Baum. I do not want to take all the credit. He’d crash my training sessions and say, “Kevin, make sure that the waiters and captains ask who would like the wine list. Don’t automatically give it to the man. Don’t be a chauvinist.” I also think that women taste wine in a different way. I have a wine club, the Sherry Lehmann/Kevin Zraly Wine Club. It’s me, the president, Mick Yurch, and Claire Defoe. We taste together every week for the wine club, and it is just interesting listening to Claire’s comments on what she is picking up that I might miss. The fact is that women do have a better sense of smell than men, and I think that they have a different approach to appreciating wine. I’ve never said this before, but I am thinking out loud right now. Think about perfume. I only wore the cologne English Leather as a teenager. It smelled sweet. I watch my 14-year-old daughter, Adriana, and I have noticed how different she is, how many different perfumes she has. Do you know how much money it costs me to go into Sephora? More than gas. I think that women are brought up with a little more sensitivity to smell.

You created and still run the most successful wine school in the country. How did that come about?

If you recall, we were a club at lunch. We had over 3,000 members. Do you remember the club director, Jules Roinnel? He’s retired down in Virginia. But he would put on all of these different events and he said, “Let’s do a wine class for the club members.” We had 12 people for the first one; that was in the fall of 1976. We taught once a week. I taught Class One and Class Six, and in between were the original New York Times wine critic Frank Prial, who just passed away; German wine expert Peter Sichel; Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, would teach Italian wine. Then he said, “Well, listen, if a club member wants to bring a guest, let’s do that.” And all of a sudden we’re up to 30 people. By the next year, we had more guests than club members, so we decided to open it up to the public. Since then we’ve had over 20,000 students. And I’m very, very proud of the fact that the school has run for 37 years uninterrupted—even in 1993, after the bombing at the World Trade Center. We’d already started our February session, and the Port Authority wanted to keep the classes going—they wanted to keep the name Windows on the World out there, even though it was closed from 1993 to 1996. We moved to 7 World Trade Center to finish those classes, then we moved back into the WTC, and finally over to the Vista Hotel, which later became a Marriott. All of it gone now. All of it. But we continued the classes. After September 11, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was teach a wine course. Why did I continue? Because my peers, the people working in the wine cellar, Michael Lomonaco, Glenn Vogt, Jules Roinnel, my family, and my therapist at the time—probably most importantly my therapist—said that the best way to heal is to do what you do best. I was very lucky to know the general manager of the Marriott Marquis, Mike Stengel. When we moved the wine school there, he just did everything to help me out.  So now we’re going into the 37th year, and the funny thing is I just started taking credit cards last year. That goes back to John Novi, who wouldn’t take credit cards at the Canal House. For 36 years I got away with taking checks. Now Paypal is my best friend.

How did the school lead to the country’s best selling wine book?

The first thing I can say about the book is, I grew up in a town called Pleasantville, which was very “pleasant.” It was the home of Reader’s Digest. My grandmother would come to our house every Friday night, bringing all the publications that had the condensed version of books or articles, and I read all of them—they were so easy to read.  My book is the condensed version of wine. I felt there were no books out there that easily addressed this very difficult subject. The only basic book at the time was Alexis Bespaloff’s Signet Book of Wine, which was used in Cornell University’s wine classes. But my students thought it was too complicated. My degree is in elementary education. So take that all in and look at my book one more time—it is the elementary-education wine book. We have now sold over 4 million copies. I guess you could call it my best annuity. I’m very blessed that my publisher allows me to edit the book every year, and now it is interactive, with audio and visual elements through a free smartphone app. You scan the page and can hear “Trockenbeerenauslese” pronounced by a German speaker, “Brunello di Montalcino” by an Italian speaker, and so on. For the first time ever, in 2014, I’m coming out with a wine calendar. We are also making this interactive with QR codes. So it’s not just one of those things you put on your desk with wine quotes like “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine.” My publisher, Sterling, is owned by Barnes and Noble; it has helped the book to have such a good distributor and marketer.

And you created what has become the country’s most recognized wine event in conjunction with Wine Spectator. Tell us about that.

I created the New York Wine Experience in 1981; the first three were held at Windows on the World. It was done, obviously, for promotion for the restaurant, and it is still happening 30 years later. I directed the whole program for the first 10 years; then Wine Spectator took over the California Wine Experience, which had started the year before in San Francisco. Both are still the best wine events in the country, using basically the same format I put together in 1981. What they did was get people together to experience fine wine. If you recall, we had the wine school for beginners and intermediate students, but we also had the advanced wine classes, which were very high end. The Wine Experience was just an expanded version of those. They held 100 people, and the first Wine Experience only had about 100 people too. The second year we had 250, so we had to move it out of Windows, and that is how it got to be at the Marriott Marquis.

Today I teach master classes in conjunction with Sherry Lehmann. Thursday night, our guest speaker was Piero Antinori. Last week, we had the winemakers of Châteaux Canon and Rauzan-Ségla. Three weeks ago, our guest was Francis Ford Coppola, who showed his new Inglenook wines. That was just in the past month. We have about 75 people coming to those classes. When the Wine Experience hit 1,200 people, I felt it was not my thing any more. In the fall of 1991, my first child, Anthony, was born and I felt I should spend more time with my  family. So I’m very happy to say I created one of the greatest wine events in the world; even more important for me was that it was set up as a 501-C corporation. As a 501-C, you have to donate part of the earnings every year; it must go to charity. My first choices were Cornell and the Culinary Institute of America. Toady Cornell has the Wine Spectator Room and the CIA has the Wine Spectator Restaurant in Napa Valley, all paid for by the scholarship foundation. So the New York and California Wine Experience events are still providing funds for charities. They were among the most important things I have done, because they brought together a lot of people with the best wines in the world.

How do you think the wine industry has changed since your early days in the restaurant business?

It is a total transformation. Look at this Beverage Media from 1976. Most of these wholesalers are no longer in business. The importing and distribution of wine has totally changed. You now have two major companies in the United States: Southern Wine & Spirits and The Charmer-Sunbelt Group.

 And just as in any other business, you have lots of mergers and acquisitions. In the old days, when I was 20, wine was not  understood and consumption was very low. In the early ’70s, I had a rep who came in to the Canal House, and I would ask him for a case of Nuits-Saint-Georges and he didn’t know what I was talking about. And I thought, here is a guy making $50,000 a year, and I’m in college, bartending, working in a restaurant, making $5,000 ayear. Why was I going to college? In the first place, to find a profession. He was a good salesman, but he didn’t know anything about wine. So I called his boss, and his boss didn’t know anything either. Finally I called the distribution company and spoke with the owner, and he had no idea what Nuits-Saint-Georges was!

Wine then was East and West Coast centric. Now it is all over the country. All 50 states have at least two wineries, and the United States is now the number-one consumer of wine in the world. Also, there is a new breed of sommelier. When I started at Windows, there was not much wine education available other than reading, tasting, and visiting wine regions on your own. Now there are all sorts of societies and organizations where you get your diploma or become a Master Sommelier or Master of Wine. When I started, there were only two sommeliers in New York City—me and some guy that was 75 years old at some French restaurant uptown.

Today, almost every restaurant has a sommelier or somebody who knows about the wine list, which is the good news. My point is, you go to one restaurant on this block and one on the next block, and the sommeliers have completely different wine lists—and I understand that. I think it’s great to be innovative. But how far do you go? My whole concept to this day is to be 80% inside the box and 20% outside. Let’s take Burgundy. I’m going to use the wines of Faiveley. I’m going to use the wines of Jadot. They were there when I started, and they’re better than they’ve ever been. Another sommelier will try to find a lesser-known producer. My point is that many sommeliers use a different method—20% inside the box and 80% outside—which might be difficult for consumers.
There is more interesting wine. There are more sommeliers than ever before. There are more wine choices. And you’re right—they’re getting bombarded with reps. I would find it much more difficult, in all honesty, to be a sommelier today.

Here’s another major change. From my research, according to the National Restaurant Association, over 50% of all wine sales are made by the glass in white-tablecloth restaurants. This is a big shift, and I’m all for it. I’ve always said wines by the glass are the greatest thing for consumers, because they have more choices; they’re good for the restaurant as they can get a better markup; and the distributor is happy because they get a volume order. So it is a win-win-win situation for everybody. There are so many wines out there. And all arrows point to the United States. Italy wants to be here. South Africa wants to be here. Everyone wants to be here. It’s got to be tough on a sommelier, to make the right choices for the wine list.

How has the restaurant wine experience changed for today’s diner?

I think there will always be classic restaurants. Take a look at Boulevard [in San Francisco], for example. Do you call that a classic restaurant?

A classic casual bistro, yes.

So we have to discuss what “classic” means. How many French restaurants are left in New York? I recently went to La Grenouille, who won the 2012 national award for Best Service from the James Beard Foundation, and talked to the owner, Charles Masson. It is hard for him; he still requires jackets and ties. So he opened the upstairs for a more casual experience. The casual customer can enjoy the upstairs artist’s loft, which is beautiful. Downstairs, you have the same customers that have been coming for 40 years. Yes, I think dining is definitely going more casual. According to Zagat, the top three New York City restaurants—Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café, and Gotham Bar and Grill—are more casual. But then again, there are Bouley, Per Se, and Jean-Georges, which are doing very well.

So the wine industry has changed, but the food industry has also changed. Cooking has changed. When I started in the early days, sommeliers were the stars. Chefs never came out of the kitchen. This was very important; they were not supposed to come out of the kitchen. They were there to cook.
But today’s chefs are on the Food Network, they have their own shows, and they are very visible in the dining room. So what I think you have is a parallel change. You have Americans taking on the culinary world, going to great restaurants, and at the same time they are exploring and drinking  wine. It’s a big change both ways.

I still think markups are too high in restaurants. I do all these dinners, as you do, for corporations and I’m shocked at what restaurants are charging. You walk into some restaurants today and you can’t find even one wine that’s under $75. I don’t think that is healthy for the wine business or the restaurant business. I find myself frequenting restaurants that have great food but don’t overcharge on the wines.

What advice do you give aspiring sommeliers today?

First of all, I am not a Master Sommelier or  a Master of Wine. That option didn’t exist in the United States when I started. There were very few schools. That’s why I created mine. I didn’t really create it for the industry; I created it because there wasn’t anything around for consumers. Harriet Lembeck was there, and her beverage program still continues, but that was more for the industry, teaching about wines, spirits and beer.

I think sommeliers cannot have only book knowledge. If I owned a restaurant today, or if I had a distribution company or a wholesale or importing house—and I might get in trouble for saying this, but why not, right?—I wouldn’t hire a wine person. I’d hire a salesperson and teach them about wine because at the end of the day, though I hate to sound so businesslike, it does come to the sale. All sommeliers are salespeople, whether they like it or not. That is why they can make that transition sometimes into the distribution world. But the fact that you know wine doesn’t in and of itself mean you can sell it. Just having a certificate saying you’re a sommelier isn’t enough. Studying to be a Master of Wine or a Master Sommelier forces you to learn more and affords you the opportunity of trying many different wines. But for me, the best way to learn about wine is to go to where wine is made. It’s experiential learning that matters most. It never ends, and it’s difficult. You’re working all these late hours in a restaurant and you don’t have a family life, and I’m saying, “Get up and travel now. Take your two weeks of vacation and visit a wine region.” But you need to go to understand the wine, the people who make that wine, and the food they serve it with.

Besides the Windows on the World Wine School and the Sherry Lehmann master classes, what other projects are you working on?

Well, we have Obama for four more years, and we have Kevin Zraly for four more years. By then the wine school will be 40 years old. And at some point in time, you have to say I did it, it worked, but I will probably end my involvement then. The Windows on the World Wine School will continue, affiliated with wine bars in different cities around the country. I wrote that business plan a long time ago. I’m only going to work with quality educators. I only want to deal with quality wine.

Also you may recall I have worked with Robert Parker and his team for the past eight years. I think what Robert Parker does is quality. Robert Parker and I created a wine-certification program.  This is sort of like what you are doing with your Six-Week Wine Expert online-education program—trying to get to the masses. And of course Asia is a very big market. The new owners of The Wine Advocate and want to emphasize education. And so we are meeting to discuss that.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

The number-one thing in my life is the arts—music and theater. I had a band called the Winettes. People paid us not to play! It was originally Joey Delissio of the River Café, Michael Skurnik, Josh Wesson [retailer/author], Bryan Miller [former New York Times restaurant critic), and me.

Number two in my life is sports. I’ve been coaching basketball for as long as I’ve been involved in wine. I am now coaching my third son, Harrison, who just turned 16. Harrison started as a freshman, and as a sophomore he’s at quarterback and safety. Unfortunately, he broke his finger and had to sit out the first part of this past season, but in his first game back he scored 17 points. So I get joy out of watching sporting events; we go down to the city a lot to watch games. There are a lot of sports writers out there who turn into wine writers, like Dan Berger and Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman. I’m proud to say that at 62 I can still throw a 40-yard pass, kick a 30-yard field goal, and make three-point shots in basketball.

Number three is wine, and it pays for numbers one and two. But I will say that the most important thing in my life is my children—Anthony, 21: Nicolas: 19, Harrison,16: and my princess, Adriana, who’s 14.

Planet Grape’s popular and entertaining speaker and host for corporate and private events, Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess, is also a professional Champagne sabreuse, a Contributing Editor of Sommelier Journal, the San Francisco Champagne Examiner for, the drinks columnist for Basil Magazine, a frequent contributor to CNBC’s and Nation’s Restaurant News, a French Wine Scholar, and an instructor at the San Francisco Wine School. Like her on Facebook at and follow her on Twitter @planetgrape.

© Copyright 2014 The SOMM Journal

INTERVIEW Michel Rolland, Libourne, France

The Sommelier Journal

June 15 2011
Catherine Fallis, MS

The globetrotting consultant explains his philosophy of viticulture and winemaking.
Michel Rolland is one of the most sought-after and yet one of the most divisive figures in the global wine industry today. His knowledge is immense, his client list studded with some of the top wineries in the world. Intimidating? Yes. Formidable? Yes. Yet when he came around a table of Master Sommeliers to guide us in our blending exercise during a program at Simi Winery a few years back, he was “just one of the guys.”
Like Max Schubert and Robert Mondavi, Rolland was greatly misunderstood and criticized early in his career. Like them, he has stuck to his guns and followed his vision. I, too, was in the critical camp. It wasn’t until I had tasted several hundred wines on a whirlwind tour of Argentina, and later had a revealing conversation with that country’s influential Laura Catena, that I finally understood just how Rolland operates. He grew up in a winemaking family in Pomerol and studied at the Bordeaux Institute of Oenology, where he met his wife Dany. The couple opened their lab in Libourne in 1973, and their consulting firm took off from there—now employing seven assistants and numbering more than 100 clients in 15 countries. As his mentor, Émile Peynaud, did in Bordeaux, Rolland has promoted better viticultural techniques and cleaner winemaking methods around the world.
I have learned over the years that the most significant people in the world are often the most humble. When I wrote an article on glassware for this magazine (February 2009), I was thrilled to include the stems designed by Dany Rolland. She was as accessible and gracious then as her husband has been in answering questions for this interview over the past several months.

How important was your childhood at Le Bon Pasteur in shaping your later career?
I think it has been very influential, because when I was very young, my world was the vineyard, the seasons, nature. I was born in 1947 at the hospital in Libourne, only 400 meters from the Pomerol appellation—a very auspicious beginning both in location and vintage! All the family was at Maillet, now Le Bon Pasteur. I grew up there, played with my brother, walked through the vines with my grandfather—all the unforgettable childhood memories of tastes and smells and day-to-day life in a family environment in the countryside. As I got older and more involved in school, I worked in the vineyards during summers and holidays. It was a very carefree time for me, but I remember my parents worrying all the time about frost, flowering, rain, rot, which I now know are common problems for grape growers.
What were the key factors in your early wine education?
I spent all my childhood and adolescence with my grandfather and my father, for whom the vine and the wine was the sole preoccupation. So I was aware very early of their world of viticulture and of nature. I was very drawn to the outdoors, to the fields, the insects, birds, and flowers, and was unusually focused on this bounty of colors and aromas that was all around me.
How would you describe the role of Émile Peynaud in changing the French wine industry?
As a young student, I found him so interesting to listen to, very straightforward and easy to follow. Professor Peynaud was the first who understood that wine had to evolve to remain attractive and cultural, and he initiated the current process of the quest for quality. He was the first great field expert and enologist with great sensibility and clearsightedness, besides being an eminent scientist. He was and stays my mentor, in his approach to enology and his philosophy; it’s clear that without the evolution of the science and the knowledge of terroirs, we cannot speak about the application of common techniques today. His approach, his sensibility, his intuition, the way he practiced enology, and the way he tasted and spoke about wine make him the most important man who enlightened and guided my career.
How did you and your wife Dany expand from an enology laboratory into consulting?
It was the time when people in viticulture began to realize that the science of enology could help them. It was not so easy; it took 20 years to establish this activity. At the beginning of the 1980s, after the hardly mediocre 1970s, I thought that it was necessary to evolve in the cellars, in the vineyards, and in the mentality to optimize wine quality. Some vintner friends in Bordeaux played the game, and it was the beginning of a constant quest of self-reappraisal, observations, and actions in the course of the vintages. The 1982 vintage was a good triggering factor.
If Bordeaux reds have become bigger and more fruit-driven over the past 30 years, what are the reasons? What do you think has been your own role in this development?
Wine is a consumer product and must respond to consumers’ tastes. We must wonder all the time what is perfectible and, by the way, check where we have to evolve. That’s what I’ve tried to do for 30 years. My goals include watching to obtain a good sanitary state of the raw material, sustainable production, ripening grapes, soft extractions respecting the fruit, meticulous aging, less manipulation and treatments, more attention to the vineyard, less vigor, and better knowledge and preparation of soils and grape varieties that will allow us to overcome the harmful and very influential climatic variations in Bordeaux. I introduced the first thinning-out of leaves and green harvests at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, always looking for the best potential. I was a field enologist and one of the first to taste grapes by going through miles and miles on foot in the vineyards.
You’ve been associated with interventionist winemaking techniques such as microoxygenation. Is that fair?
The lack of culture and stupidity are journalism’s interventionism. I have never been a fanatic of microoxygenation, which can have good efficiency in certain cases, but not systematically. Only [Jonathan] Nossiter in Mondovino, by a truncated editing, in a particular vintage, ascribes these intentions to me. I’ve never been a tireless interventionist in new technologies; everything has to adapt to the conditions of the sort of wine to be produced. On the other hand, I recommended manual destemming and banished all the materials, techniques, and treatments that are stressful for the grape, or the wine, and often not justified. But once again, we do not vinify a grand cru the same way as we do a $5 wine. My job is to adapt to my customer’s market request in his particular terroir.
How did the Rolland Collection develop?
The Rolland Collection is still a young company in the wine business, as we began in January 2007. My daughter Stéphanie and my son-in-law David Lesage are doing a great job. Today, we are selling the wines in 35 countries. Both our actual clients and our prospects are very interested in working with a 100% family company that built this incredible collection of wines from Bordeaux to the 6,600-foot altitude in Argentina, white and red, different and typical grapes. They also like the way we sell our wines directly, not only through the Bordeaux négociants (except for Le Bon Pasteur and Fontenil futures), and the way we are managing the prices, our communication, and support by dealing directly with the estates—no more intermediates—being able to send an order from the entire range of 17 wines in four countries from one place, as we have all our stocks in Bordeaux. We have new cuvées coming from Mariflor in Argentina, one of our biggest projects, with the winery just built and ready: Bodega Rolland in Clos de los Siete, Vista Flores, Mendoza.
How did you get involved in Argentina?
Arnaldo Etchart asked me to consult at San Pedro de Yacochuya in 1988, and it has been the beginning of a nice story with Argentina. At that time, the wine produced in this region was not so good—too much production, too much water irrigation. Now, Cafayate is considered one of the most interesting wine zones in this country.
How do you see the future of the wine industry in South America?
As everywhere, there are very good wines, and the South American market, including Brazil, is tremendous. There are certainly good possibilities for the wines in South America—good projects, good terroirs to be discovered.
How did you get involved in California wine?
Zelma Long, the winemaker at Simi Winery, came to meet me in France in 1986, on Bob Parker’s recommendation, and that was the beginning of my career as an international consultant.
What are your most significant projects in California and Washington?
Harlan Estate in Napa has been one of the most exciting, with a success never before seen in the United States. I now have 15 clients in California. In Washington, I make the Pedestal Merlot for Long Shadows in Walla Walla.
Does your approach to winemaking differ in the New World?
In my opinion, a winemaker has to first adapt to the grapes he has to vinify. Grapes are the reflection of the place where they are produced. Winemaking cannot be the same in the New World and Old World; however, in both, it is important to be attentive to the customer and to his market. I think that the philosophy is the same, but the raw material is different.
Could you describe some of your other consulting projects around the world?
I’m working in Bulgaria with Telish/Castra Rubra, a magnificent project; Monteverro in the south of Tuscany, a small project, but very exclusive and sophisticated; and one in Israel, Amphorae. In South Africa, I consult with a collaborator at L’Ormarins for Antonij Rupert, which is a nice project. We are also working in Chile, Brazil, Spain, Croatia, Turkey, and India.
How do you see the French wine industry evolving over the next 30 years?
It is very difficult to give perspectives over 30 years in terms of production and consumption. The future will be more in the vineyard—the respect of nature—than in the cellars, where today we know how to work well. Also, if the visions of global warming are confirmed, Bordeaux, among other French areas, will be well situated. The respect of nature is an obligatory orientation.
What will be the impact of changing wine styles on restaurants and sommeliers?
Nobody decides about the style. There are only two important factors: the terroir and the consumer. They are both giving their success to the wine.
You’ve been cutting back in recent years to support your family’s other ventures and careers. Are you enjoying that role?
I do what I like, and it suits me very well. My main activity is enology, but today, it is necessary to speak about wine, and I gladly help the children to speak about our family history and about my own experience.
Do you ever foresee yourself retiring entirely from the wine industry?
Are you in a hurry? Personally, I am not. Wine is a passion for life, and I am going to be too old to become good playing golf!
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