Ray Isle is the Executive Wine Editor at Food & Wine magazine. He's been at F&W since 2005; before that he was the managing editor at Wine & Spirits. We checked in to find out how he got interested in wine in the first place, plus what he's excited to be drinking now.
What are you drinking these days, Ray Isle? What do you drink when you drink for fun?
I drink pretty eclectically, partly because I'd usually rather try a wine I'm not familiar with than one I know well, particularly in the affordable zone. But there are categories I go back to over and over—the gravitational pull is too strong—such as Friuli and the Alto Adige for whites, good dry Riesling from pretty much anywhere, reds from Catalan Spain (Priorat, Montsant, etc), and old Barolo and Burgundy (when I get the chance). I also love great California Cabernet that's had a chance to age—people sometimes forget how well it does that.
By fun, if you mean what I drink when I'm not working, well, wine. But also Manhattans. And I've become weirdly enamored of tonic syrups, like the Jack Rudy Small Batch Tonic. Mixed with seltzer and ice, it's a great thing to drink after running a couple of miles. Though in that case I skip adding the gin, of course.
How did you get into wine in the first place?
Randomly, at first. One example: I worked at a rare book store in Washington, DC, and one day a rather imposing woman came in cursing quite impressively about her Jaguar, which had died across the street from the shop. Evidently it died every other week or so. Anyway, I let her use the phone and sit around till a wrecker came to tow the thing away. A week later she reappeared with a bottle of Montagny as a thank you. I doubt I'd ever had a white Burgundy before—I definitely didn't grow up in a wine-drinking family—but I remember tasting it and thinking, "Well, that's way the hell better than what I usually drink." There were several instances like that; then, a graduate fellowship in writing moved me out to the Bay Area, and closer proximity to wineries. Which I started hanging out at. Then working at. And so on.
How do you feel like the American wine drinker has changed over the past few decades?
I think this country has been rocketing up a steep wine-learning-curve over the past twenty years or so. It's extraordinarily exciting, at least if you give a damn about wine. The breadth of wine options out there, and the willingness to try them, particularly, is greater than it's ever been. What's mysterious to me, or perplexing, is that there's this kind of ambient hostility to wine as something snooty or pretentious that still rears up pretty frequently. It seems bizarrely outdated and at the same time bizarrely tenacious.
Which domestic wine producers are you excited about these days?
So many it's hard to narrow it down. The offbeat indie California labels that have started up in recent years—people like Forlorn Hope, Massican, Tatomer, Tribute to Grace, etc.—are by and large a pretty fascinating group. But there are plenty of people who've been around for quite a while who don't necessarily have newsy buzz attached to them that I think are thrilling. I tasted through a lineup of 2010 Pinots from Calera the other day which were just spectacular; ditto a similar lineup from St. Innocent in Oregon; ditto several vintages of Fred Scherrer's Old & Mature Vines Zinfandel, which anyone who loves Zin would be nuts not to run out and find. Tracking individual winemakers is also rewarding. Ross Cobb, for instance, is making great wine both for Hirsch and for his own label, Cobb. Also, some things that particularly excite me aren't exactly wineries. The Historic Vineyard Society, which is a non-profit dedicated to preserving California's heritage vineyards, is extremely cool; of course, it doesn't hurt that the wineries involved in it—Bedrock, Carlisle, Turley—are making wonderful wines.
Where do you look for value in wine around the world? Are there certain regions/producers that you think offer particularly good deals?
If value means paying less than you want for something that offers more than you expect, I think paying attention to economic factors can make a lot of sense: labor and land is cheaper in Argentina than in California for instance, so no surprise that it may be easier to get a terrific $8 Malbec than an equivalent California red. Similarly, you pay for prestige: Napa Cabernet automatically runs higher than Paso Robles Cabernet, for instance.
Right now, for me, I'm excited about values from Portugal (reds, mostly), Bordeaux (a vast region with some amazing values, once you get past the pricey classified growths and so on that get all the attention), southern Italy, and the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Also, Finger Lakes Rieslings. The best are still remarkably underpriced.
What lesser-known grapes or regions do you think will rise to popularity in the next few years? What wine trends do you see coming next?
I think Eastern Europe has the potential to be fascinating. Romania; Croatia; Georgia; Hungary, of course—lots of winemaking history, then a deep silence during much of the 20th century. I'd love to get there and see what's going on.
Grape-wise, I think the current trend of everyone in the new world planting everything unusual they can get their hands on and seeing what happens with it will continue. Case in point, I was in the Barossa Valley in Australia recently and some young guys there are making really terrific Saperavi, a completely obscure Georgian grape (obscure unless you are in Georgia, that is). Pretty cool. And, with that in mind, I think Australia overall will come back. The amount of ambition and experimentation going on there among young winemakers is sort of mind-blowing; most of the wines aren't coming to the US yet, but keep your eyes open for them.