In 2018, when Steven Kolpan retired from teaching wine classes at the Culinary Institute of America, I wrote to thank him for being my teacher 25 years earlier. Back then, wines class was what you took when you got back from your externship—four months in a real restaurant, and often a prestigious one—getting a taste of what life was going to be like after graduation. We came back pumped, ready to get back into the kitchen, show off what we’d learned, practice the things we hadn’t, and get the heck out of there so we could go get a job. Wines class was a serious bummer, two weeks of having to show up for a class where no knives were needed, no adrenaline was going to get us through. Wines required sitting still, listening to lectures, taking notes, doing the things many of us had thought we’d gotten out of ever doing again by choosing culinary school.
And yet somehow, by day three, Kolpan had our attention. A former maître d’ at the Depuy Canal House in the Hudson Valley—the same restaurant that minted Kevin Zraly of Windows on the World—he knew the power of telling stories. He would regale us with tales of wine-country visits (one, involving an Italian vintner who had landscaped his yard with fairy bridges, still stands out) and he would play films for us so we could get a sense of places the wines we tasted were grown. He had a way of talking about bottles he’d tasted and pairings he’d had that was never boastful; it just made you want to find that pairing for yourself. Many of us had never thought much about wine—it was considered a sommelier thing, not a cook thing—but even the kids who didn’t drink got into it. As Francis Lam (’03) put it, “I loved that it was a class where we talked about ideas rather than just prescriptive instruction. And even though my zilch alcohol tolerance makes wine hard to taste, Steven’s stories and sense of wonder made me eager to learn to think about wine and terroir.”
Kolpan’s storytelling continued outside the classroom, where he wrote about wine in his off hours (not that there were many, as he taught about 100 students a year). With his fellow wine-program instructors, Michael Weiss and Brian Smith, he co-wrote three editions of Exploring Wine, the massive CIA textbook, and two of WineWise, a book that won the James Beard Award for Best Wine Book in 2009; he also wrote A Sense of Place, the story of Napa Valley’s historic Niebaum-Coppola winery. After he retired in 2018, he penned a column for The Valley Table, a magazine local to the Hudson Valley, where he lived. He also freelanced for others and had been playing around with ideas for another book when he died last week at 73.
These days, cross-training the front and the back of the house isn’t that rare; nor are cooks who care about wine. When Kolpan started at the CIA in 1987, the school had no advanced wine studies programs and no Greystone campus in Napa Valley’s wine country. Heck, there were only seven Master Sommeliers in the US. Kolpan was way ahead of the game. By training hundreds of chefs—persevering with classrooms of bored, tired, clueless young cooks—he helped break down that wall, and opened doors that many of us didn’t even know existed.
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