As the executive wine editor of Food & Wine magazine, Ray Isle is in charge of everything from wine seminar topics at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen to picking the brains of (then writing about) the world's greatest winemakers. With such vast knowledge of the industry, however, we wanted to pick the brain of Isle himself. We snagged him in the tasting tents for a minute to talk about the year's biggest movements in wine, from trendy grapes to hot regions, as well as his take on where to get the most wine bang for your buck.
POPSUGAR: You've covered everything from nearly extinct wines to an Italian wine taste-off. How do you come up with your ideas?
Ray Isle: [I] like taking a wine idea that I'm interested in writing about — whether it's value in wine, or Riesling, or a particular region — and then taking a contrarian or interesting turn to it. Case in point: I wrote about Muscadet, but I wrote about it in the context of taking a road trip in the South and pairing it with all sorts of things like Nashville hot chicken and barbecue. I'd noticed that Muscadet was turning up on cool restaurant lists; it's an amazing food-pairing wine, so I wanted to do something with it. But I didn't just want to do a "Muscadet is great! You should drink it" article. So then I thought to myself, Jon-David Headrick is a wine importer who's based in Nashville; he's importing these lean, acidic French Loire wines, and yet, he's in the heart of barbecue land. So I just called him up and said, "What do you think about doing a Southern food road trip with Muscadet? Because my bet is it will pair well with all this stuff."
PS: Your latest story's about how to find the best wine for you. Any advice for people still figuring out what wines they enjoy?
RI: Food, we start eating when we're babies, so by the time we're 20 or 25, we know what we like. Wine, most people don't start drinking it until they're adults, so you're coming to it — especially in the US, where it's not part of the regular culture — not really knowing what you like. You're learning, as an adult, this entire world of flavors. It can be tough, especially when you walk into a wine store, where there's 700 bottles of wine in front of you. My advice to people is two parts: one, learn some of the basic aspects of wine, like acidity. Do you like things that are tart, or not so tart? Do you like wines that are big, massive, and rich, or do you like wines that are light and crisp? Do you like red or white wines more? Then start tasting everything you can find. As soon as you know why you like it, then you can find other wines that are like it. Learning about wine, there's a lot of detail and there's a lot to learn. At the same time, it's not like calculus. The fact that it's detailed and there's a lot to it doesn't mean it's not fun.
PS: You touch upon wine trends as much as you can. What's on the rise this year?
See his answer when you keep reading.
RI: I'm seeing a continued interest in Riesling; it's going gangbusters. I'm beginning to wonder what the next "Riesling" is that sommeliers are going to fall in love with. Muscadet? That's been a trend; [I'm] starting to see that in restaurants. One good trend is that the economy's back up, and so people are buying a little more expensive wines, which is nice, because you're seeing some growth in the $20 zone instead of the $8 zone. It's a funny one that's hard to pin down, but there's a lot of generational shift going on, especially in European wineries, where you're getting kids in their late 20s and early 30s who are really taking over a lot of family wineries. That's kind of a long-term or big trend that's hard to say "this is exactly happening here," but it's definitely going on, and it's going to be interesting to see what it does to the character of the wines. Often when there's a generational shift, people start doing things differently: it's in Germany right now; there's stuff going on in Italy, in Beaujolais. It's a sign of the times. Beaujolais is hot right now — thank God, it's about time! — Cru Beaujolais, particularly.
PS: From the Next vegan menu to vegetable-focused places, vegan cuisine has blown up. How will that affect the wine industry?
RI: It's not going to affect the wine industry that much because it's still a very small movement. I don't think it's going to affect how people are making wines. It's going to affect what wines are bought for some restaurants. But until the time that half the country is vegan, I don't see a big shift.
PS: One of my favorite stories of yours was on the small-producer movement. Someone interested in small producers — where would you recommend they begin searching?
RI: Well, that article's a good place. If you live in California, it's a lot easier to find them, and they're easier to find at restaurants than they are retail. These aren't like the cult Cabernets of the past that sold out and had a giant mailing list; these guys are making unusual grape varieties, and they have wine to sell, so you can have it shipped to you. The other advice I'd give on this group of cool, small-production, young California producers is . . . they're all tied to each other in interesting ways. They're either friends or someone worked somewhere that someone else worked. There's a network. They're all interested in the same stuff. If you find one, then you can usually find the others through them.
PS: What wine category on the whole is the most undervalued at the moment?
RI: There's a lot of really good affordable Bordeaux out there that nobody knows about. So much is all of the press and reputation of Bordeaux is tied to the very high-end wines. For a long time, a lot of the affordable [Bordeaux] wines weren't necessarily that great, but there's a lot of ambitious, interesting producers popping up in the nonmajor Bordeaux regions. You can get some spectacular wines for $25 as opposed to $1,000 for first-growth Bordeaux. That's cool.