As part of the ongoing fundraising campaign to complete the New Paltz Community September 11th Memorial at Fire Station 2, located at the corner of North Putt Corners Road and Henry W. DuBois Drive, Mohonk Mountain House will host a wine-tasting event on Sunday, March 6 beginning at 3 p.m. Conducting the tasting will be Kevin Zraly, one of the planet’s most famous wine experts and quite possibly its most popular wine educator — who also happens to have deep roots in the New Paltz community, a great love for Mohonk and a powerfully personal connection to what happened on September 11, 2001. It’s what a connoisseur might call a perfect pairing.
Zraly worked for 25 years on the 106th and 107th floor of One World Trade Center, the offices of his Windows on the World Wine School occupying the space even during the three years following the 1993 truck bombing when the restaurant was closed and the classes relocated, first to Seven World Trade Center and then the Marriott Hotel in Midtown. Dozens of colleagues and other people he knew personally, some of them good friends, were killed in the 9/11 attacks. Normally Zraly, wine director for the Windows on the World restaurant, would have been in the building on a Tuesday; but he had stayed over in New Paltz after the weekend to celebrate his son’s tenth birthday the next day.
When the news came on the radio that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center, he was sitting in his car in the Convenient Deli parking lot, having a takeout coffee and reading the morning paper. “We all have life-changing moments; that was mine,” Zraly says.
The enormity of the tragedy very nearly convinced him to give up his career. “The last thing I wanted to do after September 11 was to teach wine. I said, ‘This is it for me; I’m finished. I’ll find something else to do.’” Fortunately for oenophiles everywhere, Zraly’s psychotherapist managed to persuade him to “get back on the horse.” He went on to reach his 40th anniversary as a wine instructor this year, and this fall’s semester will be the Windows on the World Wine School’s last.
“There’s a time to let certain things go. I’ve taught more than 20,000 students over the years. It’s been a great run,” Zraly says. That doesn’t mean that he’s retiring, though: He has two new books coming out, will continue lecturing on wine all over the world, give master classes for wine merchants, consult for corporations and host wine cruises. And he’ll continue to do “one-offs” like the event coming up on March 6: a crash course that he calls “The One-Hour Wine Expert.”
“I cover the six major grape varieties in the world: three whites — Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay — and three reds — Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can do it at any level. It’s fast-paced, simple and uses understandable language. You will learn more in one hour than you ever learned in your entire life” about wine. Although a food-tasting is not planned for the Mohonk event, Zraly will discuss food pairings for the different wine varieties as well.
He’ll also be selling the most recent edition of his four-million-selling classic 1985 book, Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, which is essentially the curriculum of his courses. The update was timed to coincide with the opening of the World Trade Center Site Memorial, with a dedication to the 72 victims whom Zraly knew and new sidebars quoting former employees who did not die on that fateful day, reminiscing about their time spent working in the spectacular restaurant.
So the campaign to create a 9/11 memorial in New Paltz has deep meaning to Zraly. Although the aftermath of the disaster was “a melancholy time for me,” he tries not to obsess about it. “I had to stop looking at obituaries, who was to blame for the destruction, the smoke, the politics,” he says. “The terrorists didn’t stop me.” But every year on September 11, he visits another tall structure close to his heart that’s still standing: the Albert K. Smiley Memorial Tower on Sky Top. Mohonk is the place where he feels most at peace; Zraly does much of his writing there.
Even during the years when he spent most of his workdays in Manhattan, he kept a home in New Paltz. He had been a history major at SUNY New Paltz with no particular interest in wine before a job as one of the first waiters at the Depuy Canal House in High Falls turned into a bartending position when Craig Claiborne gave the restaurant a four-star review in The New York Times and business began booming. Zraly quickly educated himself about wine — which, he notes, was not nearly as popular in the 1970s as it is now — and soon became a true believer. He hitchhiked around Europe and California to meet the world’s great vintners and see the wineries for himself, and even talked the abstemious Quaker Smiley family into planting their first crop of wine grapes on the Mohonk property. “The formulation of my life in wine began here,” he says. He also has a special appreciation for New Paltz’s first responders, who were tremendously supportive of the Zraly family when their house on Cragswood Road was destroyed in a fire in 2005.
The March 6 tasting at the Mohonk Mountain House is a great way to get a taste of Zraly’s infectious enthusiasm for wine — at a price much lower than he usually charges for his classes — with all proceeds going toward construction of the memorial.
The idea for a memorial has evolved over time. A “Tree of Remembrance” was planted by New Paltz resident Butch Dener and his friend, the late Carmine Liberta, in 2002 to honor 9/11 victims. Funds were raised to place a commemorative plaque into the ground by the tree, and over the years, said Dener, he’s been touched to see how the spot has become a place where people spend time and leave mementos, especially around September 11.
“But we always talked about making a real memorial,” Dener says.
Last year, he worked with the New Paltz Fire Department to acquire an artifact from the World Trade Center site. While awaiting approval of their request, they learned that a police department in Rockland County had given the New Paltz Police Department a scarred and burned stanchion that had been out in front of the north tower plaza. And now that the New Paltz Fire Department is in possession of a piece of twisted structural steel from one of the beams in the towers, the two artifacts are slated to be mounted on pedestals in a formal 9/11 memorial park setting outside the fire station.
Rick Alfandre of Alfandre Architecture has designed a dignified site plan that incorporates the mounted artifacts and a large flag of honor detailing the names of all who perished, to be displayed with the original commemorative plaque from the site. Kurt Wulfmeyer and Chris Powers of KC Fabrications of Gardiner have come on board to do the bases; they built the parapets at the National Memorial at the World Trade Center.
Tickets to the March 6 fundraiser cost $35 per person, $60 for a couple, with a ten-percent discount for first responders. To attend, RSVP by February 29 to Dener at 845-527-4100 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Payment may be made via at www.paypal.com/home, click on send, and enter the e-mail address: npseptember11memorial@gmail.