I was a “lost child” in 1969 when the Woodstock festival took place — naïve to the ways of the world, unaware what the future held for me. Until then, I led a structured, sheltered life: Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school, a jacket and tie my daily uniform. When I got to Woodstock, a lot of people weren’t even wearing any clothes! It was the moment I decided to join this new “tribe.”
I was awestruck, excited, wide-eyed — the energy both inside and all around me. Here was a group of people my age (young!) from different backgrounds getting together in harmony with nature and music despite the dreary weather. Let the sun shine in!
Only a month before, men walked on the moon, so anything was possible. It was the Age of Aquarius, and it was upon me. I was blissfully swept away with possibilities.
After Woodstock, I immediately left my quaint little hometown of Pleasantville and enrolled in Ulster County Community College in much the same fashion of the famed lyrics from Canned Heat: “I’m goin’ up to the country…I’m goin’ where the water tastes like wine.”
I moved to High Falls and heard through the grapevine about a special restaurant, the DePuy Canal House Tavern with chef and owner John Novi. I was hired just as they received a four-star rating from the New York Times. Within months I became the bartender, and wine was my focus. Lucky for me, this restaurant became another family just like Woodstock.
And so my wine education began, out of necessity. One of my philosophies about life is this: If you want to learn something, go do it. Over the next five years, I studied, taught, and traveled to learn everything I could about wine. With Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock” in my head, I also planted my first vineyard at Mohonk: “Got to get back to the land and set my soul free… And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
I hitchhiked to California to learn about the wineries there, graduated from SUNY New Paltz, and then headed off to study wine in Europe. I learned about myself, too. I started looking at life differently.
At 25 years old my love of wine got me a job at another magical restaurant: Windows on the World, where I stayed from 1976 to September 11, 2001.
Woodstock was a rare life lesson for a lot of young people — it was a turning point for me. Since then, my life has been extraordinary. It all began at Woodstock when I started to see the possibilities.
A toast to the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, 1969–2019.
Kevin Zraly is a James Beard Lifetime Achievement award winner and the author of eight books on wine and food, including the best-selling wine book in the U.S., Windows on the World Complete Wine Course.