“I still get excited when I find a $17 wine that blows me away.That is a continuous hunt for me at the magazine.” Ray Isle
During the 2013 Austin Food and Wine Festival, I had the chance to sit down and chat with Food & Wine Magazine Executive Wine Editor, Ray Isle. A self-described “Texan living in New York,” Ray was one of the festival’s preeminent wine presenters, offering three seminars. His gentile Texan style eschewed any sense of wine snobbery as he shared his knowledge and passion for wine.
B&B – Ray, Many wine lovers can point to one moment when their love affair with the grape began. Did you have a wine epiphany?
RI – For me, I was having dinner a long time ago with a former girlfriend and her father. He ordered…I’m positive it was an ‘84 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. I started drinking this wine and about three sips into it, I thought WOW, I’d never tasted anything like this before…it’s really good and it began to preoccupy me throughout the dinner. I probably paid more attention to the wine than my date. So that’s when it started.
Then I was randomly fortunate to get a writing fellowship in the bay area. I started hanging out at wineries and volunteering on the bottling line because they paid you in free wine so I could get wine that a graduate student normally couldn’t afford. I later switched my teaching schedule around for a couple of years so I could work harvest…Finally I said I’m done with academia…I’m going to be in the wine business…one way or another. I switched and never looked back.
B&B – What are the biggest challenges about being the Executive Wine Editor at Food & Wine Magazine?
RI – Food & Wine is very much a food magazine and a wine magazine, so I want more wine content and the food department wants more food content. There is always a very friendly back and forth about that. Writing well about anything is difficult, so my own standards make it tough. Additionally, since I am writing for Food and Wine, I can’t just write about what I like. We have an enormous audience and they have to be taken into account. We have to write about wines they can find. I can’t just write about small production wines because I’ll get a mailbox full of emails saying, I can’t find this wine anywhere. So I balance the needs of our readers with my own wine passions.
B&B – How do you keep your wine writing fresh?
RI – What I do is wine journalism. I don’t score wines. I do recommend wines but I also write about the people, places, latest trends and the historical background of things. It’s tricky because many of the most significant wines and wine places have also been written about ad infinitum. So finding something new to say about Chianti is always a challenge. But the nice thing about wine is that there is always something new to say and new trends to report…like15 years ago I would not have been writing about Malbec from Argentina.
B&B – We enjoyed you on the PBS television show Vine Talk with Stanley Tucci. What do you see as the future for wine television?
RI – Wine has a basic problem with TV in that TV is a visual medium and wine tasting, appreciation and wine itself is not a particularly visual subject unlike cooking which involves knives and fire, people running around, slabs of liver and what not. It’s basically liquid in a glass and you swirl it, sniff it and taste it and TV demands a visual interest. Location based shows like In Wine Country have tremendous costs. Non-location shows, in a studio, have to work around the problem of swirling, sniffing and spitting. Vine Talk, which was a blast to do, was a work-around. We showed celebrities at a quasi-dinner party and got them to talk about wine so there was both an educational and entertainment aspect. However, it has been tough to get the funding for the second season and PBS has its own odd requirements since there is no advertising.
I’ve been waiting for someone; I’d love it if it was me, to come up with a wine show that garners a huge audience because with TV and movies you realize just how big the reach is. As a wine journalist and wine lover, I want more people to fall in love with wine. Look at a movie like Sideways, a popular but still indie-film without a giant release; it had a measurable and substantial influence on the sales of Pinot Noir and Merlot. So if there was a hit wine TV show it would be a fascinating thing.
B&B – How would you compare the Austin Food and Wine Festival to Aspen Food and Wine Classic?
RI – They are very different in scale…Aspen and Austin are very different towns and I love them both for their own reasons. Aspen has been going on for 35 years so organizationally; it is a machine…that’s not a bad thing. Austin is still figuring out the best angle to showcase a food and wine event for Austin. First, I was psyched to hear we were doing something in Texas which means I can come home and drive to Houston to visit my mother and I just love Austin. I like the fact we incorporated the music element which captures the sense of the city, too. I’m very interested in Texas wines, so I think it’s great we have the Food and Wine Festival smack in the middle of one of the Texas wine regions. Austin just has a great vibe as a place and the festival seems to have taken off pretty well.
B&B – What new wine coverage will we see in Food & Wine this year?
RI – I’m trying to get more and more wine coverage in the magazine all the time and I’m succeeding or not…as the case may be. I’m always interested in up and coming regions including wines in obscure places like Pinot Noir in Patagonia. We are also looking at wine regions in America that are not in California, Oregon or Washington.
It’s a really good time to be a wine consumer. There’s a lot of really good affordable wine under $25. The quality level of 10 to 20 buck wine available in the U.S. can be incredibly high. That’s a good chunk of what I write about, affordable wines of the world. Not coming from a wine drinking family, I still get excited when I find a $17 wine that blows me away. That is a continuous hunt for me at the magazine and definitely readers can expect more of that.