While Mr. Zraly helped build a thriving network of sommeliers, thousands of ordinary people who took his classes — to become wine-buying customers in restaurants and shops — were the primary beneficiaries. He says his students at first were not that interested in wine. They were more interested in learning how not to feel embarrassed.
“They want to learn how to order wine in a restaurant,” he said. “They want to learn to walk into a retail store with confidence. They don’t want to learn everything, it’s too overwhelming. They just want to learn something.”
He developed his entertaining style out of self-defense. “I knew nothing about wine when I started,” he said, “so I became an entertainer, to fend off questions.”
Over the course of a class, students might be served 10 glasses of wine. “People would never talk until the third glass, and they wouldn’t shut up,” he said. “At a certain point it’s no longer a class, it’s crowd control.”
When Mr. Zraly started teaching, he said, his classes were 90 percent men. By 2001, they were 60 percent women. Sadly, he said, his students are still overwhelmingly white.
Since Sept. 11, Mr. Zraly has taken his act on the road. He has taught the course in hotels, on cruise ships, at wine shops, to corporate clients, to pretty much anybody willing to pay what most recently was $1,200 for the eight-week introductory course.
Then came the pandemic, and Mr. Zraly was stuck at home. He thought his career was over, but like so many other people, he discovered something new: Zoom.