Decanter contributing editor Jane Anson meets Food and Wine's executive wine editor Ray Isle to chat about their wine experiences and what has shaped their wine writing, for a special series to celebrate the 40 year anniversary of the Judgement of Paris.
In part one of this six-piece series, Jane and Ray talk about everything from their first sip as a child, to awkward teenage dates with sweet German Riesling to the influence of the changing food culture in wine drinking habits.
Decanter.com: ‘As respected wine experts from different parts of the world – what is your earliest memory of wine being brought up in the USA and UK?’
Ray Isle: ‘My earliest personal memory is probably from when I was a kid, which was in the 70s, and we didn’t have much wine at home but we had wine every thanksgiving. The one I remember was a Stag’s Leap Riesling which was definitely off dry and I remember that along with ads for Black Tower.
I grew up in Texas which wasn’t exactly a wine savvy place. There’s a lot of Bordeaux and Napa Wine collectors in Texas now who buy a lot of wine and there are some great restaurants but, in the 70s, wine was a much, much less visable as a drink in the US.
It wasn’t part of the day to day life in the US, not in the way that beer or spirits were. Though that’s changed enormously and part of that has been as a result of the food world changing enormously too.
The interest in food has got much more broad based, intense and focuses on creating good food instead of just pre-packaged whatever. And that’s pulled wine along with it. But if you look at the level of knowledge and the level of acceptance in the US compared to when I was a kid, it’s just massively different.
I think it’s different to Britain. Britain has always had a wine, I don’t know if it’s the same throughout the cultural strata but there’s been a long history of the British drinking European wine.’
Jane Anson: ‘…And setting up their own wineries and vineyards.
My personal experience was growing up in Oxford. My father was a lawyer and my mother was a pharmacist. They didn’t have a huge cellar. When I was growing up in Oxford, we would have wine once a week, so it’s interesting that you said you had it once a year on Thanksgiving.
A lot of Decanter writers traditionally would have come from families who had big cellars and started drinking wonderful Claret when they were 12 years old that their father opened for them. That was really not my experience.
My family didn’t drink a lot. On Sunday lunch they’d have a glass of wine. Me and my sister would have literally a thimble that was half wine, half water that we were given from, I guess, quite a young age. But that was it. And that was the experience I would say for most of England at that time.
“I think I had one date where I was trying to impress someone and I got a bottle of wine…”
There were always the pockets of people who were huge Claret drinkers and it would have been Bordeaux in the 70s along with Port, Sherry and all of the classic, German Riesling, all of the classic regions. But that really wouldn’t have been the experience for most people.
And then when I got to be maybe 16 I might have started to going to wine bars not really to drink wine in particular but to drink alcohol. It just happened some of them would have been wine. At that time the wine bars in the 80s would have been terribly, terribly cheesy and would have definitely had Liebfraumilch, Chianti, all still European but…’
Ray Isle: ‘The Chianti in straw?! In the 80s I was in college and no one drank wine, you know. I think I had one date where I was trying to impress someone and I got a bottle of wine. I bought, of course what my mother would have bought, which was a sweet Riesling. The girl I went on the date with was Greek and her family was European so knew about wine. She was like ‘this white is really sweet!’
It didn’t work out that well. She was nice but I don’t think I came across knowing about wine – it wasn’t the look I was going for at all.
Now I know from talking to recent interns at Food and Wine, universities have wine clubs and people do wine tastings for fun. That didn’t exist in the 80s as far as I know.’
Jane Anson: ‘That definitely did exist already in the ‘good’ universities, in England. What’s different today, and absolutely reflects the US, is there used to be a line drawn between the people who would drink wine and the people who wouldn’t. And really the people who would were a certain level of culture, aristocracy and goodness knows what; but it was really seen as something quite different from the usual experience. And now those lines have really gone.
“there is an experience and an understanding, exactly as you say, that wine is part of living. And part of living well…”
Of course it doesn’t mean everyone is trading up to drinking great wine but there is an experience and an understanding, exactly as you say, that wine is part of living. And part of living well.’
Ray Isle: ‘Food has gotten way better than it once was there’s no question of that. I’ve thought about this because occasionally I do stuff on the Today Show which is a mass audience TV show. Katie Lee Gifford, the segment I’m on, they drink wine on the show all the time and it’s occasionally the butt of jokes and so on. But the point is this is a mass American audience show, it’s not aimed at the culturally sophisticated or the super wealthy or anything like that, and wine is just one of the things you drink to have fun and that is a huge shift here.’
Jane Anson: ‘Wine works really well on television. There’s always a difficult thing about how do you present wine on television and really in the 80s and 90s in the UK there were quite a few wine programmes like Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson. There were people who were bringing wine on television.
But it was always quite difficult to get mass audience for just a wine show. And what they do now, which is much more successful, is put it within just normal shows so, what you have is a Sunday morning talk show and you have a section on new wine but it’s part of something else. If you’ve got a chef you’ve got someone cooking with wine and they kind of worked out that that’s a better way for most people to talk about wine.’
Ray Isle: ‘And they definitely worked out having chefs on TV. That seemed to work out fine for chefs.
I’m just waiting for the wine writers to get the same treatment!’
Part 1 of 6: Ray Isle of Food and Wine and Jane Anson of Decanter met for a chat after the – Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley, to find out what had shaped their writing style and who they are writing for.