Cheesus Christ Superstar
April 13, 2004

Last night I was one of the chosen. I was among the divine. I was perched on the right hand of glory. And, no, I didn't just sit through The Passion of Mel Gibson's Hands, I went to a wine and cheese tasting hosted by a special interest group of the San Francisco Professional Food Society. Even though I'm not a member (yet) of SFPFS, Cat was sweet enough to ask me to Maytag along.

Should it bother me that only cheese geeks will get that joke? Perhaps not -- I'm rather used to people not getting my weird jokes.

Anyway, the point of this particular meeting in a gorgeous Potrero Hill house was that Laura Werlin, author of The All American Cheese and Wine Book, was going to be pairing wines and cheeses for the group.

Imagine my surprise! My glee! My sublime happiness at this opportunity! For sitting on my desk that VERY moment was Laura Werlin's first book The New American Cheese on loan from work! I was using it and Ari Weinzweig's book to boost my cheese knowledge. In fact, since devouring the cheese portions of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating, I have surprised, astounded, and generally befuddled my fellow cheesemongers with sudden and unexpected knowledge about how cheddar is made and why a good Emmenthaler weeps when cut open. Okay, it was one fellow cheesemonger, but she was all those things I said she was.

Back to the tasting.

The wines in question were as follows:

Chateau Souverain 2002 Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc
Dr. Loosen 2002 Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett
Chimney Rock 2000 Stag's Leap District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Robert Mondavi "La Famiglia" 2001 Moscato Bianco

And the cheeses:

Redwood Hill Farms Fresh Chèvre, Sebastopol, CA
Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, McKinleyville, CA
Marin French Cheese Company Triple Crème Brie, Petaluma, CA
Fiscalini Bandage-Wrapped Cheddar, Fiscalini Farms, Modesto, CA
Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese Company, Black Butte Reserve, Orland, CA
Serena, Three Sisters Farmstead Cheese Company, Lindsay, CA
Le Petit Bleu, Marin French Cheese Company, Petaluma, CA
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company Original Blue, Point Reyes, CA
Cowgirl Creamery, Red Hawk, Point Reyes, CA

Recognize a few of those? If you're a longtime reader and salivator here in my little corner of the gastronomic world, you will recognize at least two of those cheeses from this very site. I, being the expert, recognized six of them. Actually, I'm being a lot more blasé than I was last night which was more like: "Oh my god! I KNOW those cheeses! Oh, this is so COOL! All those back-breaking, arch-falling hours haven't been for naught! Crap, I hope I don't knock over all these glasses." But I kept it all inside. And I didn't knock over anything.

I learned oodles, but the most important thing I gleaned was that, as a rule, red wines and cheese do not the good bedfellows make. There's something in cheese that exaggerates any tannins present in red wine. By the same token, staying away from oaky Chardonnays is also a good idea, "Unless you like licking the side of a barrel," Laura added.

Fruity white wines -- and "fruity" doesn't necessary mean "sweet," so stop the exaggerated gagging -- are preferable. In fact, you really can't go wrong with a Riesling when eating several cheeses.

Laura slightly amended her statement that all reds are bad and even advocated that red wines could mesh well with semi-hard cheeses like cheddars, Goudas, and Gruyères. When you have red wines with the cheeses mentioned, you're matching texture with texture: full-bodied cheeses complement, or at least don't completely ruin, full-bodied wines. However, the larger point was that white is best.

It was right about here that I started to feel really embarrassed because a few scant days ago, Cat and I met up after work to have a glass at the wine bar together. I brought along a round of Red Hawk but when Cat ordered a sparkling white, I selected a beautiful Ponzi Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Yet here was this woman, this expert, saying that reds were bad. And there was Cat, sitting next to me knowing full well that I had ordered a red wine with our cheese a few days ago! Oh, the shame of it! The disgrace! The back of my hand pressed convincingly against my forehead!

Fear not, hungry readers, all was not lost for your Keckler, because Laura did also say that fruity, lighter red wines, like Merlots and Pinot Noirs are the only ones that should be paired with cheeses. That is, if you MUST have red wines, of course. And usually, I must. There's a little grape humor in there for those who really want to see it.

Something else I learned was that you shouldn't consume the rinds of the cheese when pairing them with wines. Although almost all rinds are completely edible, they will coat your tongue and inject strange -- and possibly unpleasant -- qualities into the wine you are sipping. This seems like the writerly appropriate time to note that Laura told us that the cheese influences the wine. The wine does not influence the cheese.

To start off the tasting, Laura suggested we take two (not one) small sips of the first wine before tasting it with the cheese. She informed us that it's key to do this if you are tasting your first wine of the day. Laura explained there's so much going on inside your mouth with the initial sip that you really need to regulate it with a second sip before you can be assured the true quality of the wine will be accurately represented.

Having already suffered through -- ahem, I mean taken -- a wine course at culinary school, I knew the correct way to taste wines without food, but this double sip was a new idea to me. It put in my mind that I haven't written about how my manager recently showed me the correct way to taste cheese.

I didn't really know there was a correct way, but after doing it a few times, it made sense. My manager shaved off a thin slice of Chaource (pronounced "showers" and recently written up by Janet Fletcher of the San Francisco Chronicle) from rind to rind. This is called the "taste" and you actually get much more flavor from a thin shaving of cheese than you do from a big old hunk. Remember that when you're at Bennigans ordering your next Atkins Approved steak slathered with mass amounts of blue cheese. Manager explained how important it is to get bits of both rinds on the taste. Following instructions, we took a teeny bit of the cheese from the middle of the taste, rolled it around on the tip of our index finger with our thumb, sniffed it, and spread it on our tongue. The next job was to use our tongues to spread the cheese over our palates and to aerate it by taking in a breath through our nose. After that we were to repeat the process two more times by taking bits of each rind from the taste.

On to the pairing!

The first pairing of the Sauvignon Blanc with the Redwood Hill chèvre was a bit of a bust. We all took a taste of the cheese and my first reaction was "Hmm, yogurty!" but then after I swallowed I felt exactly the way I did once in the dentist's office when the assistant left that suck thing in my mouth for much longer than absolutely necessary. Or in other words, the chèvre dried out my mouth. Cat was making a likewise sour face that expressed exactly what I was feeling. Laura took a bit and pronounced that the cheese was decidedly off and was, more than likely, a victim of bad storage. How embarrassing, as she had bought the cheese from my place of biz! I mean, I didn't sell it to her, but still! Pairing it with the wine really didn't do much for it and did far more damage to the wine, so we proceeded.

We moved on to the Humboldt Fog, which was very nice with the Sauvignon Blanc but superior with the Riesling, bringing out a good deal of the honeysuckle and floral attributes of that particular wine.

Up next was the Triple Crème Brie from the Marin French Cheese Company. My piece looked almost pinkish-orange on the rind and the pate bore the same hue. Laura said the faint ammonia-like smell that affects many cheeses would go away if the cheese was left out. However, when we tasted this cheese all agreed that it was probably on its last legs. Having it up against the Cabernet Sauvignon convinced everyone of Laura's previous point: red wine and cheese can be disastrous. It was obvious she picked a nice, hearty red wine like a Cab to hammer this point home. Most effective in how truly awful the combination was. Having first tasted the wine, we knew full well it wasn't the wine's fault, it was definitely the pairing.

However, the next pairing of the Fiscalini Cheddar and the Cabernet Sauvignon also made Laura's other point about pairing texture with texture patently clear. This British-like cheddar brought out a meatiness, a fullness, a bigness in the Cabernet that was quite delightful. Almost a meal in itself, Laura commented. The Cabernet's dark fruits shone through quite nicely as well.

The Black Butte Reserve, which seemed sharper, tangier, than the cheddar didn't fare so well with the Cabernet and seemed to neutralize the Riesling. With the Riesling, it wasn't bad, it wasn't good, it was just nothing special.

Tasting the waxier Serena -- which is not one of my favorite cheeses because I find it sort of boring -- with the Cabernet, the Sauvignon Blanc, and the Moscato seemed to yield the same results. Nothing extraordinary, just neutral.

Le Petit Bleu, a blue brie, was incredible with the Riesling but it overpowered the Moscato. I'd like to try more cheeses from the Marin French Cheese Company since I've learned they are expanding their line to include more triple-crème bries and some other soft-ripened cheeses like their own camembert.

Another more familiar blue was up next with Point Reyes' Original Blue. It was terrible with the Cabernet, but Laura entreated us to try it with a fruity Pinot Noir on another occasion. It was sublime with the sweet, desserty Moscato. We got into a discussion about Bonny Doon Vineyards at this point, because I championed their Pacific Rim Riesling when the discussion turned to gettable U.S.-made Rieslings. Laura agreed wholeheartedly that Pacific Rim Riesling is quite a find and even suggested that Bonny Doon's Viognier Deux is a perfect dessert wine to have with blue cheeses.

We ended with a youngish Red Hawk, which really brought out the best in all the wines. In the Moscato I could taste mint that hadn't been present before, I discovered grapefruit overtones in the Sauvignon Blanc, and I found honey hints in the Riesling. The only wine it didn't do well with was the Cabernet; with that wine, it was just neutral. Laura told us that she likes to keep her Red Hawk in her fridge for at least a month before she eats it. I'm totally trying that next time.

It was a most excellent night.

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