The April issue arms you with smart wine-buying tips and gives you plenty of ideas for what to pour and cook as the weather warms.

Hunter Lewis
Credit: Wes Frazer

Last summer,at the first mealI had with F&W Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle, things took an unexpected turn. Ray and I were seated at a dinner party in a Brooklyn photo studio, sipping sake and making small talk with other guests, when our Japanese hosts surprised us by bringing out blindfolds.

For the next hour or so, everyone at the table ate blindfolded. Cutting off our vision enhanced our other senses, highlighting the aroma and flavors of the food and the textures of Japanese-made lacquer-and-earthenware cups and bowls. Our phones became obsolete, which meant no distractions. We actively listened to one another.

Here’s what I learned that night about Ray: A Houston native, he taught creative writing at Stanford University and was a Wallace Stegner fellow, working on the side as a barrel-hauling, forklift-driving, pinot-punching cellar rat for two harvests at Clos LaChance winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Before long, that part-time gig blossomed into a full-time wine obsession, and Ray left academia. He sold port in New York City and wrote about wine before joining the F&W team 13 years ago.

If you’re a regular reader or you’ve attended Ray’s seminars at a F&W festival, you know he’s a born teacher and storyteller who understands the structure of a good yarn as well as he does the structure of the wine in your glass. As I tuned in that night at dinner, I found that he talks just like he writes.

For this Spring Wine Issue, we uncorked Ray’s encyclopedic wine knowledge (and some of the 3,000 or so bottles cellared in the F&W wine room) and tapped into his port-selling roots, sending him undercover as a salesman at wine shops across the country. Ray learned as much from his customers as he taught them while reporting What’s Your Wine, America?. (One takeaway: Women are more efficient wine buyers than men because they’re not too proud to ask for help as soon as they walk in the store.)

Ray came back from the road energized by his interactions with the wine-buying public and with a better understanding of just how overwhelmed some of you may feel when you’re standing in front of a shelf with dozens of Pinot Noirs. “It’s cool to talk to people who are just getting into wine,” he said, recounting the excitement of a young guy in Los Angeles to whom he’d sold a case of Riesling. “It reminds me of what happened to me when I first started getting into wine. You can see it in their eyes.”

This issue arms you with smart wine-buying tips and gives you plenty of ideas for what to pour and cook as the weather warms. There’s a lot to be excited about, including California’s next generation of women vintners, Easter brunch recipes and the perfect wines to pair with them, and a list of 40 bottles that changed the wine industry. Be sure to try our sure-fire technique for perfect steak au poivre (with a classic red wine pan sauce, of course).

So pour a glass. Ray Isle’s class is in session. What’s better than wine? Wine with a story. (Blindfolds optional.)

Wine Country Wildfire Update

The Northern California fires last fall caused 43 deaths and the destruction of thousands of homes and structures, including many in Napa and Sonoma counties. This worsened the region’s housing shortage, especially for low- and middle-income residents who work in the wine and hospitality industries in cities like Santa Rosa. Many of our chef and winemaker friends there say the best things you can do to support those in need is to come visit (despite initial reports, very few wineries actually burned) and donate to organizations like Rebuild Wine Country or UndocuFund.