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Saturday, February 18, 2012

From Bordeaux to Christie's: an Interview with Wine Industry Pro Robin Kelley O'Connor - Part 2!

What accomplishments are you most proud of at this point in your career? 

Robin Kelley O'Connor & Kevin Zraly
When I took over this job at the Bordeaux Wine Bureau for the Americas, I needed to establish an education program [so] I went to the number one wine educator, in my humble opinion, in North America, Kevin Zraly who was [the founder of] Windows on the World Wine School and the Wine Director. In the year that I started in 1989, I went to see Kevin and said, “I’ve got a budget and I need to take a program and put it together and we need…to go around North America to educate the trade.” We started with the Wholesale-Distributor-Import network…all these major players…and within 4 years we went to about 80 cities a year doing these distributor seminars and Kevin became my tutor, my mentor, my inspirational guru. Kevin really taught me the art of presentation, the art of communicating because that was another skill set that was completely different than learning to prune vines in the vineyard and making Pétrus in the cave. 
What Kevin taught me was how to synthesize, fuse, and bring together all that I had learned and deliver the message to the trade, to the public, to the consumer, to the press. I so credit those first four or five years as laying the foundation for future accomplishments when I was with the Bordeaux Wine Bureau. Having the chance to travel with Kevin and witness him bring his magic to every single seminar that we ever did, whether it was for 25 people or 1,500 people was a great, great opportunity, but then…he started having children…and he just wasn’t really able to travel. 
I [also] had the occasion to have the great British wine authority, Clive Coates MW, whose seminal books on Bordeaux and Burgundy, travel with me around the United States when Kevin was unable, to deliver Bordeaux seminars over a couple of years period. Clive was a great mentor; however with budget constraints and geographic barriers, I had to take over that speaking role. I kind of looked at myself the first five years as the producer and the director and Kevin the actor, artist and performer. However I had to become the producer, the actor and director. So from that point on, I did all the seminars around the country and I did that for the next 15 years.

What are some of your most gratifying experiences?

There’s so many but I would certainly say, Kevin and I probably would agree, that as much as we love the trade and the SWE, there’s nothing like getting in front of a group of young people like at the CIA or Cornell where both Kevin and I had these lasting relationships. Now those same people we taught who were in their early 20’s are now running restaurants, own their own restaurants maybe [they’re] Chefs maybe now they’re Masters of Wine or Master Sommeliers, that’s what I call gratifying. When they come up to you and say, “it’s because of you, it’s because of what you taught me in that course, I was so inspired,” it gives you goose bumps. It is a wonderful feeling every time someone comes up to me and says, "thank you very much, you don’t remember me but you gave me a path, you gave me inspiration."
In 2003 Kevin began collaboration with the great New York based retail wine merchant Sherry-Lehmann creating The Sherry-Lehmann/Kevin Zraly Master Wine Class which features the best wines in the world tasted with the winemakers and owners with vertical tasting of at least 10 different vintages. I had the great fortune to be invited by Kevin to decant the wines (Ch. Haut-Brion) at the very first Master Class. Since inception in the fall of 2003 I’ve been part of the nearly 50 master class seminars with the top wines of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, California etc.
Also, in 2008 and part of 2009 I went around the world with Kevin to assist him in the 25th anniversary edition of his “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course." We visited over 15 countries, 80 wine regions, 500 appellations and tasted more than 7,000 wines. With a stroke of luck when we returned from the world wine trip, I was invited by the Sherry-Lehmann partnership to join them as Director of Sales and Education. I had over two wonderful years working with the oldest family owned retail wine business in the United States which dates back to its founding in early 1934 right after the repeal of prohibition. Sherry-Lehmann was honored in 2011 as the Wine Enthusiast Magazine Retailer of the Year. Sherry-Lehmann’s commitment to wine education is second to none.

What advice would you give to an aspiring wine educator?

It’s a very simple formula, you must get out there and expend as much energy as you possibly can attending wine tasting, lectures, visiting vineyards, wineries, and winemakers. Take advantage of every opportunity no matter where you are in this great earth of ours. Find out if winemakers are coming to town and be a sponge, absorb everything you possibly, possibly can. You can’t be sedentary, advance yourself with determination and it's important to read everything that’s out there and take advantage of all that’s on the web. Find the pace that works for you; however you have to really take a huge initiative. I became an obsessive wine book collector, I must have 5,000 wine books…I have wine books going back literally to 1800. Ok, I got a little over-obsessed but I read French and most of the older books I have are in French, it’s unbelievable and I just became a sponge.
The other thing to do is to try to teach, even if you start out with three people, your family, your six best friends, try to give them a lecture! Start with 15 minutes, start with half-an-hour, build up to 45 minutes or an hour. Get yourself in front of a small group or larger group whatever you can do, but you can’t be a Wine Educator without presenting yourself. I always laugh, they say the greatest fear in the world is public speaking and the second greatest fear is dying. Kevin did all the speaking for me in the early years so I was experiencing stage fright [in the beginning] when it came to my turn and I had to get over it, because I [eventually] had to become that person. 

Please stay tuned for the third and final installment of my interview with Robin Kelley O'Connor wherein he discusses his experience at Christie's Auction House, his favorite food and wine pairings and plans for the future!


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