May 15, 2020 • 32M

A Conversation with Layla Schlack

Listen now | The wine world is a very complicated one, with its own language and its own rules. I talked with one editor about how to navigate that.

Alicia Kennedy
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Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.
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The wine world is a very complicated one, with its own language and its own rules. While that’s being challenged, invigorated, and misunderstood in equal measure with the big cultural emergence of natural wine, it can still feel far too difficult and far too vast to navigate as a newcomer. Writers and editors like Layla Schlack—associate managing editor for print at Wine Enthusiast—challenge that narrative. With her own soothing, clear-eyed voice and her ability to spot and nurture new writing talent in what’s understood as a fussy space, she’s been key to opening up this world with her work.

“Racism, misogyny and ableism are alive in the wine world,” she told me when I brought up how snobbery manifests in the world as a possible topic for conversation. “These things aren't the same as snobbishness, to me, but they are adjacent, and they are a form of gatekeeping that turns a lot of people off from learning about wine. Change is happening, and ironically, I think the construct of snobbery, enacted by people like me, with power and privilege, toward those who look to exclude people who don't look like them, is probably one of the more useful tools.”

Below (and above, in audio form) is our conversation on how she built her career, the media landscape, and the actual definition of natural wine—if there can be one.


Alicia: Hi, Layla—thank you so much for coming on with me today.

Layla: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be in your very famous newsletter.

Alicia: Oh, God. So we’ve known each other—I guess for like a few years now. We've both edited and written for each other at different—well, you always at Wine Enthusiast, but we’ve worked together at Edible [Manhattan], too, and we have organized, along with Emily Stephenson, the Food Writers’ Workshop. And also, I made your wedding cake. So we know each other and I just think it’s important to have that disclosure upfront.

I'm gonna ask you to give me a little bit more background on your food writing career and how you ended up at Wine Enthusiast, but for starters, can you give us like a little bit of a bio for you?

Layla: So I grew up in the Boston area, I got into journalism, largely because my dad worked in media. Both my parents are writers, you know; it was predetermined that I'd be a writer in some sense. My dad worked in b2b publishing my whole life. He retired a couple years ago, but he was in it for most of that time. And I believe plastics, before it was a thing. So I used to go to his office, and see how it worked. And I think it always really appealed to me that not only was there the writing side, but there was this design side and there was this kind of organizational, administrative managerial side that spoke deeply to my soul. So I went to journalism school at UCONN and it was a very newspaper-oriented, very kind of like, “you're all going to get jobs at your local newspapers and come town hall meetings” kind of program, which is really helpful background, and I did in fact get a job at a local newspaper right out of college copyediting.

From there, I moved to New York to work in magazines. I loved the format of magazines, and you know, I think I thought it was going to be very glamorous and very cool like a lot of people do, I'm sure. So I got a job at a publishing company that does all in-flight magazines, and I was there for about four years and I worked my way up. Around 2011, I started getting very into food personally and decided that I wanted to get into food writing—at a time when a lot of people were deciding they wanted to get into food writing. And so I quit that job. I went freelance. I was freelance for a little under a year; I very quickly realized that it was not for me, that I still like doing all of these other tasks of being an editor and that I am not great at nor do I particularly enjoy marketing myself.

I got a job at Fine Cooking, which was really kind of like a crash course and cooking technique as well and I was there again for about four years. They started having a lot of layoffs—not Fine Cooking specifically but the publisher. And with that came this extreme caution in what we were publishing that everything had to kind of appeal to our core readership and be fairly conservative. That's when I started looking for other jobs. And, you know, when Wine Enthusiast came along—I've always been interested in wine, but it really was sort of a fit in that I would get to keep learning about this kind of new to me thing. They wanted someone who knew how to make print magazines. And you know, it's a very lifestyle-oriented magazine, so the fact that I had this food and travel background really kind of worked for them. I've been there now about four years, and obviously, I've learned a lot about wine. Sorry, that's my dog. But that's how I ended up there.

Alicia: Awesome. So can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Layla: Yes, I can. So I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is, among other things, where Harvard University is, but more locally, it has a reputation as the People's Republic of Cambridge. It's a place that is increasingly very wealthy, but also very concerned with, you know, diversity and political correctness and these sorts of ideas. If I would, I would equate it to like Park Slope.

And what did I grow up eating? So I have a sister who's five years older than me and when I was maybe seven or eight and she was 12 or 13, she became vegetarian. So I decided I was vegetarian now too, so we ate a lot of Morningstar Farms products.

Neither of my parents was a great cook, but they were very dedicated to cooking our meals and, you know, and cooking whole foods and we shopped at a food coop and things like that. I wasn't allowed any cereal with marshmallows in it. So, you know, I think in terms of like, meals in my house, there were a lot of stir-fries, a lot of pasta which was, you know, mostly a decision by myself my sister. It was the ’90s, so as a lot of margarine and skim milk and low-fat and reduced calories stuff, which looking back runs totally counter to this like “we're going to eat vegetables and cook” kind of ethos that we generally had my house, but I guess, you know, I guess that's just what I did then.

And so I really didn't learn a whole lot about cooking until I was an adult. My parents taught me to make stir-fry; my dad taught me to make an omelet and scrambled eggs. But it was really pretty bare-bones.

Alicia: And how do you think that affected learning how to cook later? Like, did it feel different? Did it feel kind of like separate from the way you grew up? Did it feel like this big change?

Layla: Yeah, so I mean, I think before I learned how to cook, I just kind of lumped it in with all domestic labor which, to some extent was something I was always interested in, like, you know, I would organize the pantry on a Saturday afternoon as a child for fun and things like that. But I did have this kind of complicated relationship when I was learning to cook in my 20s as someone who's dating and cooking for boyfriends of like, “Is this what my role is going to be?”

But in general, honestly, I think it was really kind of liberating. Like I didn't, I didn't have any rules for myself about what I could or couldn't cook. It was really just this kind of uncharted territory, and completely unstructured in a way that not a lot of things in my life have been. And at the time I was learning to cook and mostly teaching myself, I was extremely broke, so it also felt like

finally, I'm learning how to be self-sufficient. And finally, I'm, you know, learning this really valuable skill and I can feed myself and other people really affordably and it tastes okay.

So there weren't really many negatives to learning to cook for me.

Alicia: And so, what were the resources you used when you were trying to teach yourself how to cook?

Layla: The internet was a big one. You know, again, growing up, we really didn't even have many cookbooks. We had The Settlement Cookbook, which I've written about. And we had the Joy of Cooking and we had Moosewood. So you know, but I was working in media already when I was learning to cook, so I got free cookbooks. I'd look at those. I was at the time, like, reading and reporting a lot about restaurants. So I'd get you know, chef recipes and be looking at what they were doing and kind of figure out how to dumb that down for myself. But honestly, a lot of it was pure instinct. And then right before I started working at Fine Cooking, I took a series of classic technique classes at at ICE, the Institute for Culinary Education, and then, you know, working at Fine Cooking, where we had a test kitchen, and it's a teaching magazine; I learned a lot, a lot, a lot on the job.

Alicia: And so when you started at Wine Enthusiast, what was your wine background like?

Layla: At Fine Cooking, we would often recommend wine pairings with the recipes and I worked on those. I worked with a writer who provided them, but we'd also get wine samples. And you know, we were pretty good about distributing them evenly and everyone would write tasting notes and so I kind of knew a little bit about how to taste wine.

And I think my, you know, for my 21st or my 22nd birthday, my dad had taken me out and bought me a case of wine and was very sort of like, well, “Pinot Grigio is a lighter white and you want it from Italy and Chardonnay is a heavier whiteand you want from California.” And so I had some of that in my head, but more than that, I was just a really adventurous drinker. You know, if I was in a restaurant and they had a wine I'd never heard of before, I'd say, can you tell me about this wine, I'd like to try it so and I traveled a fair amount for work—more so when I was doing travel stuff than at Fine Cooking. I'd been to Italy and I'd been to France and so I had tried wine in those places. So I have been to wineries and knew a little bit about how wine was made.

But I didn't know a whole lot, I had a good sense of, if I tasted wine, I could pair it well. And that's still probably my greatest strength in the wine world. 

Obviously, I've, you know, again, kind of picked up on the job because I've had to learn a lot of these distinctions about grapes and regions and blends and wine structure, which is something you don't hear a ton about until you're in the wine world, but it's kind of the most important thing.

Alicia: And so, yeah, what are the ways in which people learn about wine? Like I mean, in this, you're obviously at a magazine. So it's a little bit structured, but like when someone starts out wanting to learn about wine, what are the kinds of things you recommend they do? I don't know if there's necessarily really good books on it to start with. But yeah, what's your recommendation?

Layla: My recommendation is honestly just find a store in your area where the staff are friendly and where they have tastings a lot. Most wine shops have tastings pretty frequently, often because of their, from their distributors. They'll just set up a little table and pour wine, but they'll talk to you about where the grapes come from and how the wine is made. And it's free and you get a little free taste of wine. And you know, then you can go to the friendly professional who works in the store and say, I really liked this wine and ideally, you'll say, “I really like this wine because…” and they'll be able to kind of direct you toward other wines that you might like for the same reasons.

But I think the two most important things are to taste a lot and to figure out what it is you like and how to express that. And I only recommend doing store tastings for that because it's free and you know, wine can get pricey. But if you if you have access to a lot of wine some other way, whether it's, you're in a position where you can buy a lot of wine without knowing if you like it or if you work in a restaurant and they'll let you taste samples or anything like that, just taste as widely as you can and learn how to put into words what you like, and then find people more knowledgeable than you who are going to be nice about it and say, “I had this one and I really liked it because I liked these characteristics” and and you know, kind of impose on them to recommend things to you. I mean, obviously magazines are very helpful because we give you that context. Wine Enthusiast specifically will give you that context about, you know how a certain wine is going to pair with food or if the story’s very important, because it can help you

form an emotional connection to what you're drinking. And we certainly give you that. And it's just kind of a way to get comfortable with the language of it, which is also pretty huge because it's not like the language of food and it's not even like the language of beer or spirits or

Cocktails. So, you know, magazines are a good way to just kind of learn the lingo, but the most important thing is just to taste everything you can taste.

Alicia: Right. And so, the idea of snobbery maybe is so unfairly present with how people perceive wine and you how do you deal with that—or how do you like process that like, and you know, even specifically in an editorial role, how do you kind of chip away at the idea that caring about why is elitist, snobbish concept?

Layla: As someone who works in the wine industry, obviously I have people from outside the industry asked me all the time, like, is this wine good? And, you know, it's important to note that,

yes, there are technical characteristics that can make some wines better than others. But what we do at Wine Enthusiast, what I do personally in my day-to-day life is kind of say, well, it doesn't matter if it's good if you like it. I think in food and wine both we have this idea that if I like something, that means it's good. And if I don't like something, that means it's bad, and there are just a lot of ways to kind of measure good versus bad that have nothing to do with personal preference. So, you know, I think it's a huge way to kind of work around any perceived snobbery is to get over the idea of “good” pretty quickly.
I haven't encountered a whole lot of snobbery from people actually in the industry, I think, because wine can be very expensive. Like that's true. There's no talking around that. A lot of wine is very expensive and a lot of wine is medium expensive. So to have it as a hobby and to have it as something that you drink widely and passionately and collect costs money. I haven't encountered a whole lot of people who, you know, say “Oh, what do you mean you've never tried Domain Romany Conti?” which is a very prestigious and expensive and rare wine. I have not had that experience. I've had a lot more experience with people who know a lot and want to make sure everyone knows that they know a lot. And so you know, if you say I tried this one and I like it, they'll say, Well, what vintage was it? And which, and you know, was it? Was it a single vineyard? Which single vineyard was it, because I had this one.

And so I think if you recognize that this is enthusiasm and maybe a little bit of kind of know-it-all-ness, rather than snobbishness, you just kind of have to, you just have to tell yourself that you just have to say this person is excited, and they want to show me how much they know, and it has nothing to do with where I'm at, which can be a tough pill to swallow. But it's also

easy enough to just say, I don't know, you know, just say, I'm not that deep into it. Tell me why you like the thing that you liked, because that's what those people are looking for, is an in to tell you all the things that they loved about a wine that’s rare. There are the people who are collectors for the sake of collecting and one of the rarest and the fanciest and the most expensive; I don't come across them much at all—they tend to travel in different circles than

people who are just really into wine. So I don't have any words of wisdom there and you know, and working at a wine magazine like they are also our readers and we speak to them and

like I guess I just kind of feel like, Well, that's cool if that's what you want to do.

You know, I mean, there are certainly worse ways to spend your money and a lot of wines that are very rare and are very expensive, more so than with other consumer goods, like there's good reason for it. You know, it's because they're grown and produced in ways that lead to scarcity but also take a lot of skill. And you know, most expensive wine is also really simple, because they want to keep making expensive wine forever and it's you know, at heart, it's an agricultural product, so you can't do that if you destroy where it's grown. I think it's just kind of maintaining a perspective that if someone tries to tell you that they know more than you, it's more likely that they just are excited about what they want to talk about.

Alicia: Right, nothing to do with you. I think that's such a general misconception about food and beverage people, is that their enthusiasm is snobbery. Instead of just like, yeah, being excited when you've seen an entire process many times and enjoyed something widely, it's often that you're just—you just want to talk about it. You just want to share that piece. Things about food and drink are so personal with everybody that it often gets, you know, it feels confrontational sometimes to just be enthusiastic, which is interesting. That's been super-interesting to watch in the wine world, is how much people are talking about natural wine, especially in publications that have nothing to do with food or beverage. Like, there's been this generalist obsession with natural wine, which is a conversation that has been simplified and sort of universalized around like this perfect millennial caricature of an urban person with money to spend. So it goes like that. And so, like, what have you encountered around natural wine that is different from conventional wine, like how are these worlds different? How are they colliding? What are the mistakes people are making, in the way they talk about natural wine?

Layla: I want to state very clearly first upfront before I get into it that natural wine is a pretty broad term. Loosely speaking, it means kind of minimal human intervention in the winemaking process. It often also means from grapes that are organic and or biodynamically grown. There's a lot of controversy over whether or not sulfur is added as a preservative agent, so it's, you know, minimal to no sulfur. There's some back-and-forth over whether it should be filtered or fined, which means kind of just clearing out the sediment. And so oftentimes, you'll see natural wine that's cloudy, and usually it is wild fermented, so it's using ambient yeast in the air as opposed to commercially purchased yeast.

That's, in a nutshell, what natural wine is when you hear people talking about that. It will still give you a hangover. It is often made, though, in lower alcohol styles. That's called the “glou-glou” style. It's a French word that just means “glug,” easy to drink. So it's lower alcohol, lighter in body.

On the one hand, I think it's really exciting that natural wine is something that's speaking to so many people and people who might not otherwise care a whole lot about wine. Now they’re learning words like terroir, and they're learning about how wine is made and how it's grown and where and the people doing it. I think it has kind of, you know—I talked a little bit about structure and about these kinds of characteristics that wine should have to be classified as good. And, and to some extent, it is challenging that a little bit. I'm very interested in the palates of people who only ever drink natural wine, structured in line “acid tannins, alcohol body, complexity finish.” These are—these don't have a ton to do with what you think of when you think of wine tasting of, you know, notes of cherry and pine trees or whatever. They are their structural elements and, you know, in a good wine or in any wine, you're kind of looking at how those things interplay to figure out if the wine was well made. And so, in a natural wine, the rules are different, because the whole point is to let the grape express as it wants to. So if you know a grape is super tannic and doesn't have a whole lot else going on, but that's what this winemaker chose, and that's how it's expressing itsself, then that's considered a good wine in the natural wine world, not so much in the outside world, or in the outside wine world. I think that's where a lot of the conflict comes from: It's just these varying standards of what good is. But I think also, on both sides,  there's this idea of purity of, “I know the right way to drink wine and I

know the qualities that matter.”

That's where a lot of the conflict comes from. I'm someone who drinks both. I drink traditional wines and natural wines; I like both for different reasons, and I think there are probably more people like me then you really see or hear about. It's, I think, probably presented as more of a dichotomy than it really is. Because I think, again, most people who are in the wine world and love wine want to taste as many things as they can and generally enjoy drinking wine.

Alicia: For sure, I mean, I wish I could drink more natural wine here, but you know, it's not here.

In the same kind of way, the natural wine has opened up new people to the wine world—I'm going to try a segue you here that might not work—but how has food media, do you think, opened up to new voices? Like where are the new voices to be found? How are you trying to enable new voices as an editor? And, you know, how has the focus on big personalities and food media been kind of a hindrance to the conversation about food in the United States?

Layla: I think wine media is growing and changing, you know, seven to eight years behind food media, so we really have an opportunity to look at what worked, what didn't work in food media/ Obviously, the two are very related and there's a lot of overlap, including me. I also think it's important to remember that, like, there are a ton of people making food media who aren't the big personalities and, you know, and I get a little defensive about this because I'm one of them and have been my whole career. But like, you know, when you read a recipe that you find on online or in a magazine, chances are the person who developed it, the name on it is not one of these big personalities, if it's just like a, you know, weeknight dinner recipe. And it's fairly similar for wine. There are certainly kind of big names in the wine media world. A lot of them are people who have been around for a while so you know, they're slower to adopt or just kind of not as innately into the natural wine scene or that's been their whole career and they don't understand that they're not a fringe anymore but certainly less of the kind of big dominant personalities in wine media.

I think it's a lot easier for me at least to find people who write about wine and know about wine and oftentimes are coming from a wine sales or a wine retailer, wine marketing background and want to move over to the editorial side and say, Okay, well I work in, you know, one of the larger wine magazines, let's figure something out. And as an editor, it's really that simple to kind of bring new voices in as to, you know, be available to people who are interested and to

put yourself out there. There is someone who's available to people and, you know, to be active on smaller outlets and on social media and look for the people who have interesting things to say, and then reach out to them and say, I want to pay you to write about this, like, people like to hear people who are excited.It's probably easier to do because there's not this pressure to work with the biggest names in wine writing because they're, you know, because we want to bring in new voices anyway to keep expanding and growing.

In terms of what food media can do, I mean, I get it as an editor that it's really hard when you have found people who know how you work and do the thing that you need them to do. And, you know, and your bosses and the world at large is happy with the results. It's really hard to say, “Well, this was working, but I want to push myself and my readers, so I'm gonna find someone else.” But once you do it, you realize it's actually not that hard; it's just kind of getting over that hurdle of like, “All right, I'm gonna take a risk on this story and I'm gonna work with a writer who doesn't have as many clips and, you know, doesn't have as many social media followers, but is clearly smart as hell and has really interesting things to say.” I'm gonna do my job, essentially. And if their copy comes in rough because I haven't worked with them before, if it takes a little bit more upfront work, kind of giving them a more detailed assignment and explaining how I work, then that's what I'm gonna do. I will say that working in print makes that easier because we always have more time on everything. But I really think that's just kind of the key, is just an editor saying, I'm going to make the effort to do the work. You search and put in the time on the front end and the back end to work with a writer who's new to this and see what they have to say and then do that again and again and again.

Alicia: For you, are cooking—and drinking, in your case—political in any ways?

Layla: Anytime you're making choices about spending money and in food and in wine, it's such a long supply chain and it's such a big ripple effect of how you spend your money and, you know, who's hurt by it and who's helped by it that before you even, you know, pick up your tools to cook or pour your glass of wine, it's already a political decision. While you were eating or drinking, you have this further choice to reflect on it and to, you know, to tell people about it and, good or bad, and decide if you're going to do it differently next time or if you're happy and want to keep supporting these people you're supporting.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today. Layla.

Layla: Thank you. This is fun. It's good to hear your voice.