Ray Isle: Food & Wine’s wine guy
Ray Isle, the Executive Wine Editor at Food & Wine Magazine, shares his take on the Classic, the ever-changing world of wine and what he is drinking this summer
by kelly J. hayes
As a former creative writing instructor at Stanford University, Ray Isle taught budding writers the ins and outs of story structure. Today in his role as the major domo of wine for one of the most important culinary publications in America, he is still teaching structure. Now, however, his focus is on wine and he is in charge of producing both the wine content for Food & Wine magazine and the wine program at the Classic. We got a few insights into how he works with both
On Ray’s Faves at the Classic
“This will be my 12th year at the Classic, which is kind of mind-blowing. My favorite things about coming to Aspen and the Classic are many. First, Aspen itself, since I used to come here in the summers to hike and camp as a kid, and I have a lot of great memories of the place from back then (the late ‘70s — it’s changed just a bit). I also love doing seminars; telling people about wine, something I love, is a blast. And late-night hanging out at the bar at element 47 (which usually spills over into the Nell lobby) is great, because it’s jammed with wine people every night.”
On how the Classic stays
relevant in the burgeoning world of festivals
“Well, Aspen is the mother ship of all our events and one of the first, if not the first, of its kind. I think it stays relevant by always bringing in amazing new chef talent as well as famous names and in the wine seminars by doing sort of the same thing — we’ll talk about Napa cabernet, for instance, and then have a seminar on kooky bottles from the extremes of what people are doing these days. How it’s different, for me, is something that’s probably not visible to the public, but we’ve been doing this for more than 30 years now (this is the 34th Classic) and the event runs like clockwork. I’ve been to more than a few events (of course, never Food & Wine ones, ahem) where that is definitely not the case.”
On Picking the Wine Pros
“We pick speakers partly based on expertise and partly personality. There’s a baseline level in that everyone has to be an expert overall, but, for instance, Paul Grieco is justifiably known in the business for his incredible knowledge about riesling in all its forms. But all the expertise in the world won’t save you if you’re in front of an audience and you aren’t a great speaker, so that plays a role, too. It’s a high bar.”
On his Favorite Speakers
“I can’t play favorites, because I have a role in picking all the wine speakers. But yeah, Mark (Oldman) definitely hit on something with his wines for billionaires, trillionaires, etc. — no surprise that’s a popular seminar. I also have a weakness for Laura Werlin’s cheese seminars, one of which she’s doing this year together with Bobby Stuckey of Frasca. I can say that because, in addition to wine, I really love cheese. And Laura’s great.”
On his own Mondavi “Five Decades” Seminar
“I don’t think there’s been a more significant figure in California wine than Robert Mondavi. In addition to being ruthless about quality — something that will be clear to anyone attending that seminar and tasting through the older vintages we’re pouring — he really worked as a non-brand-specific ambassador and proselytizer for California wine. Particularly early on, at a time when people were skeptical about whether California could compete on the world stage. He was right, clearly.”
On SommCon Taking Center Stage
“SommCon is a kind of event-within-an-event that we started last year. Essentially, we realized that all these top sommeliers were attending Aspen anyway, so we thought, ‘Well, what if we invited even more top sommeliers and made a kind of summit out of this?’ So we invite 60 top restaurant wine people from around the country and do some intense wine programming for them, and also make them part of the Food & Wine community. Sommeliers have a huge voice in educating
the public about great wine, and we wanted
to recognize that, essentially.”
On what a wine editor does
“Ha — a lot! Currently I’m writing two columns a month as well as several feature articles a year, blogging about wine several times a week, helping on the wine side on most of our events and a ton of other stuff. My secret agenda (well, not so secret to anyone at the magazine) is that I want the ‘wine’ part of Food & Wine to be as big as the ‘food’ part. Which means making wine as big in the U.S. as food. Which is going to take some doing, but what the heck?”
On how the wine world is evolving
“What I see, from a journalist’s point of view, is two things. One, the average wine buyer is far more knowledgeable about wine than he or she was 15 years ago. Partly that’s the internet; there’s just a vast amount of info out there. But also pure interest in wine has risen. The second thing is that there’s just been a huge proliferation of wines — new brands, new importers, new regions. It’s almost impossible to keep up with, though I try.”
On the Trending Topics in wine
I think there’s some fascinating stuff going on in some of the very classic regions like Bordeaux and Chianti. You’re starting to see a lot of next-generation family members and winemakers taking over and bringing new life or ambitions, in a sense.”
On what Ray is drinking this summer
“A lot of great dry rosé. Like everyone else on the planet, apparently!”
“I love doing seminars; telling people about wine, something I love, is a blast.”
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