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Ray Isle On Tex-Mex Wine Pairings, Food & Wine Fest

rayisle.jpgWe’re a little over a month out from the first-ever Austin Food & Wine Festival, which for its inaugural run is bringing in chefs both local and national and featuring a musical tie-in because, you know, it’s Austin and all. Eater Austin recently got Food & Wine’s executive wine editor Ray Isle on the phone to talk about what to expect at the festival, whether we can reassure curmudgeonly readers that Texan wines will actually make an appearance at the fest, and why Austin’s time is now, culinarily speaking.

Isle’s originally from Houston, though he spent time in Austin as a young man, “doing the classic Austin thing, which is nothing.” Now, he lives in New York City, but he says he’s excited to be heading back to his home state for the fest—where he'll lead three seminars and join a cohort of experts who will, he reassures us, do a lot of talking about Texas wines.

“Oh yes, there are Texas wines,” Isle assured us. “There’s no question that there are Texas wines.” The festival, which has drawn criticism from some for not being Texas-centric enough, has so far confirmed Llano Estacado, Becker Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars and Duchman Family Winery, with more to come. Texas wine expert Russ Kane will host a panel featuring Isle and a group of Austin wine experts, including Congress’ June Rodil.

So tell us: Why Austin and why now for a Food & Wine fest here?

Austin has kind of blown up. Austin was always a great destination for music, I’m biased, I think it's a great city. I’ve been a fan since I was too small to really know that I was a fan. There’s that. But it's turned into a really great food scene, over the past, it's hard to pin down when it started, but you've got great national level chefs and restaurants in Austin, you've also got great local food scene. You’ve got great barbecue, you've got great regional cuisine. And on top of that you've got a great local farming, small-scale agricultural world with things like Boggy Creek Farm and places like that. That conglomeration or mix of things has taken the city and turned it into a really, I think, great food town.

I'm surprised it took us this long to have the festival there, because the time's been ripe for a while. I'm totally psyched we're doing it. It's always just kind of finding a venue, finding the time of year to do it, seeing if you can put it together logistically. What's nice about this festival is that it's drawing somewhat on the music thing in Austin; you know Lucinda Williams is playing with some other southern music talent. So it really feels like it's in the spirit of the town. Which is cool. I think it's cool. I'm psyched. It took me about two seconds after our marketing side said you know, we're thinking about doing an event in Austin, would you be willing to go? I was like, yeah! In fact if you don't send me, I'll be really, really, irritated.

What are your hopes and expectations for the festival?

I hope it draws in some people from outside of Texas, too. Because within Texas everybody knows that Austin is a great place, and I’d like the rest of the country to get that sense, too. It’s been there with SXSW and with the film festival and all that, but it’s nice to get food going on there, too.

The trend now seems to be a holistic approach to these things: it’s not just food, or just wine, or just music, but a combination.

I think you’re seeing that with festivals around the country. The thing about this is first of all we’ve pulled in the music side a little bit. But if you look at the big music festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Outside Lands, you’re starting to see this kind of very cool coming together of all these elements where if you’re into one of them, you’re into the others as well. They just launched a festival in Brooklyn that’s going to have music and food. So Austin is ahead.

What’s the first thing you do when you get to Texas?

Honestly, the thing I do the second I get to Texas is eat a lot of Tex-Mex and a lot of barbecue, because it’s just not the same here [in New York]. There’s a number of places that I like to get to, generally they’re outside of town to some degree. I’m a fan of Louie Mueller’s and a fan of Salt Lick. Tex-Mex wise, I’m less up. I try taco trucks as I see them. When one looks appealing, I stop and get a carnitas taco or something. I’ll probably end up getting some of the smoked dried tomatoes at Boggy Creek Farm if they have some, wrapped in about eight layers because otherwise they permeate your whole luggage with smoked tomato smell. There’s all the places to go like Uchi and things like that, on the higher end. I just love cruising around town just checking out things I haven’t seen in a long time and seeing things that are new that I haven’t been to. It’s been quite a while since I lived in Austin; so many of the things I remember are long gone. Long, long gone.

Okay, say we’re here in Texas, then, eating a big beef brisket. Or a Tex-Mex plate. What should we look for in a wine pairing?

With barbecue, I typically go for bigger reds, but not overly tannic reds. I think Zinfandel works great with barbecue. I think Malbec works great with barbecue. As you know from talking to any barbecue geek, there’s all sorts of kinds of barbecue. There’s Texas barbecue, which is it’s own thing, and the porky stuff they do in the other parts of the south. But with brisket, which is my go-to form of Texas barbecue, I love a Zinfandel that has a reasonable amount of fruit and not too intense tannins, with sausage you have to dial up the tannin a little bit.

And with enchiladas?

With Tex-Mex, it’s a funny thing. It kind of depends on how spicy you like things. One thing about tannins in wine, with red wines, is they intensify heat from peppers, the capsaicin, the thing that provides heat in peppers. If you get something like beef enchiladas that are covered in melted cheese, you’d think you want something tannic to go with it, but if you’re going to eat it with a bunch of habanero hot sauce and blast your mouth, you’re going to intensify the effect. Which may be what you want. I kind of float back and forth. The first default for me as a wine guy, with Mexican food, is beer. Because I write about beer too, and I love it. After that I honestly think you can do a couple things. If you’ve got a lot of crunchy things going on, lettuce and that kind of thing, I’d go for a Pinot Noir, that’s not that heavy. If you’ve got a lot of milk and cheese and grease, basically? Then I’d go for a bigger red. And again head in the Syrah, Petite Syrah, or a substantial Malbec. Or a margarita. Also a good choice.

Texas wines are growing, but so’s the craft beer scene here.

I can’t even keep up with it. There are so many places. The great thing about craft beer is that it’s become very hyper local in the beer distribution world. If you want to drink local, Austin is fortunate because you can actually drink local wine nearby. But beer, there’s a good craft brewer in any city of any size at this point. But many more than one in a lot of cities, and Texas is headed that way where there’s just a lot of people making great beer down there.

Austin does love its locally sourced food and beverages.

Austin is one of the original centers of locavorism. It doesn’t hurt that you have 45,000 college students that take care of a lot of beer.

They may not have the most discerning tastes, though.

Yeah, they may go through a lot of Natural Light or something.

· Austin Food & Wine Festival [Official]
· All Austin Food & Wine Festival Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]

[Photo: Austin Food & Wine Festival/Official]

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