Wine vs. Cheese

The annual Pike Place Cheese Festival sponsored by DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine was again a roaring success. Cheese eaters— novice and expert—packed the Market to nibble free samples, and many others also paid good money to listen to experts talk about cheese and to take part in comparative tastings. Even I, no cheese aficionado, was invited to take part in a session dealing with matching wines and cheeses. I don't know about my fellow panelists, but I certainly learned a lot, most of it cautionary. In fact, the overall message I gleaned from the two-hour tasting was: "Most wines don't go with most cheeses. Mix and match at your peril." At first, this seems counterintuitive. After all, "wine and cheese" is practically a fixed form of words these days. But on close inspection, there's no conflict. Most "wine and cheese parties" are essentially ways of lending festive gloss to an event on the cheap. Cheap, inoffensive wine; cheap, bland cheese; dull company; bad art; reaching its monthly apotheosis on First Thursday in Pioneer Square. The trouble arises when both the wine and the cheese improve in quality. Good, handmade cheeses tend to be highly individualistic, and the better wine gets, the more subtle idiosyncracies they boast. It's not surprising that when you put two such gustatory thoroughbreds together at random, odds are good they aren't going to harmonize. A mild, milky cheese, subtly emollient on its own, develops an aroma of infant upchuck when nibbled with a perfectly agreeable sauvignon blanc, which in turn begins to taste as if milkweed sap and dandelion green had taken part in its fermentation. A robust syrah collaborates with an aged cheddar to fill the nose with sulphurous vapors and the mouth with a patina of carnal decay. Our tasting session might have been genuinely educational rather than a series of disagreeable blind encounters if it had been conducted by the only one of the panelists genuinely expert in the subject. Laura Werlin has written three books about cheese, including the indispensable All American Cheese and Wine Book (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2003; $37.50), but the relentlessly populist format of our panel weighted her thoughts and her vote no more than the semipros and amateurs around her. Anyone dipping into Werlin's book might suspect that she makes rather too big a thing about the difficulty of suiting wines to cheese and vice versa; my experience on the panel suggests that all the charts and lists and diagrams in the book are absolutely necessary. As in so many other matters gustatory, it is perfectly easy to produce presentable meals paired with agreeable wines, as long as you stick to long-established combos: Port will never quarrel with Stilton, and Sauternes will shine with Brie. But if you're going off the main road, a book like Werlin's is an invaluable companion. By all means, serve your marveling guests a lovely cheese platter at meal's end. But when you head to DeLaurenti or the cheese counter at Whole Foods, take Werlin with you. No one behind the counter's likely to supply the lack.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow