Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Evolution Of The American Palate

Last week I was invited to attend a cheese and wine tasting in the home of Ruthie Grahm, (Mother of Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards) with special guest, Norbert Wabnig, owner of The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, (also known as Mecca to some Los Angeles cheese lovers) always having a soft spot for the store I put aside my, “less than thrilled about California wines” palate and accepted the invitation, fully excited to get my cheese eatin’ on, as it were.

The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills has mixed reviews here in Los Angeles, there are those die hard fans that think the store can do no wrong, there are those that feel the place is snooty and overpriced and then there are those, like myself, that can see both sides of the argument and tend to fall somewhere in the middle.

When I first started buying cheese for The Wine Country, (wow..like 10 years ago) I made it my mission to get my rump up to the store, that was world renowned for its amazing cheeses, that store was none other than, The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills and to this day I can still remember smelling the store about a block before you could actually see it. I spent two hours in the relatively tiny store that first day and walked away, $100.00 lighter and with a stinky bag of goodness funk-a-fying my car on the way home. But they really won my heart when I took my son Jeremy there.

Jeremy came out of the womb with a passion for cheese, blue, soft rind didn’t matter, he was a cheese lover, so I knew I had to treat him to a trip to The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, he was about 8 years old and he babbled like a kid on his way to Disneyland the whole ride up. When we walked through the door his eyes got wider than they were when we did take him to Disneyland! There he stood, picking up all the cheeses, squeezing them gently, bringing them to his cute little brown nose and taking deep, chest filling sniffs….he was noticed and rather than scold him the staff seemed delighted by his curiosity. They spent 40 minutes slicing of chunks of things for him to try, taking note of the things he seemed to like and bringing him stronger and more piquant cheeses each time….it was incredible to watch, they were so great to take the time, for that they will forever be gems in my, and likely in Jeremy’s eyes. That day I let Jeremy choose what we should take home….between the buttery soft green olives, salty but sweet ham and all the cheeses they showed him….well, let’s just say it was the best $160.00 we had ever spent, so worth it!

So for me, I do think the store is overpriced…partly because I am a cheese buyer so I know what these things cost, but I think it is a wonderful place with delightful people that know a lot and like to share that information and passion with their customers…that has always been my experience so that is all I can base my opinion on…I love the store and think a visit there is a must for any serious lover of cheese, so I was way on board to attend an event hosted by the owner of such a place….even more so when I heard that Yvonne, (chef, ex staff member, Merritt’s Mom and dear friend) had emailed Norbert and asked if he would be willing bring along some “special” cheeses, (she would bring a check for payment) for she and her “cheese eatin” friends…sweet!

We munched our way through the cheese tasting and I found that the Bonny Doon wines were quite tasty, still not really suited for my palate, but solid, well made wines with plenty of character. Norbert was perfectly charming, he had me laughing, longing to learn more and hear more of his wild cheese and too much wine stories. As the evening came to a close Norbert emerged from the kitchen with a super cool, green insulated bag that had The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills embossed across the front…in gold print….our little group stood there in silence while Yvonne exchanged words and a check with Norbert, it felt a bit like being a part of a drug deal…like we were about to do something naughty.

It was getting late and it wasn’t like we were going to rip into the bag right there in Ruthie Grahm’s living room, so we placed the bag in the trunk of my car and headed out to Nic’s, a hip little Martini bar. A few drinks, some delicious snacks and we handed our ticket to the valet and waited while they went off for my car….when I opened the door, “Holy Mother of all unholy aromas!” I stammered, I can only imagine what the poor valet guys must have been thinking, we knew it was the cheese in the trunk, they didn’t….I fear that I will never be able to go back to Nic’s because I will always be remembered as the girl who’s car smells like butt….awesome.

It was a couple of days before we could arrange for all of us to get together to devour the “special” cheeses selected by the owner of one of the world’s greatest cheese stores. We bought the goodies to go with them; fruit, bread, seeded crackers, cured meats, wine, the whole deal…we were so going to do this right. As I started pulling the chunks of cheese that were deafly wrapped in white butcher paper from the green bag, I scanned the names that were scrawled across the paper….”Oh, okay I’ve had that one” when I pulled out the first piece, “Oh yeah, I like this one” when I read the second, “Wow, I haven’t had this one in a while” with the third, and I wasn’t alone. Turns out all but two of the seven “special” cheeses were things that we had all had before many of which I carry at The Wine Country on a regular basis. They were all tasty and we had a blast picking, smearing and having our way with them but there were really no big discoveries for us and it began a conversation that got me thinking.

“Maybe he just didn’t understand how cheese savvy this group is” Yvonne muttered towards the end of the evening, she may have been right but I offered, “Well, maybe we just have a lot more available to us on a broader scale then we used to” so, was he a touch guilty of underestimating the group….probably, (pretty well traveled down the old cheese road crowd) but I think the reason we do know so much is because even some of the higher end markets carry specialty cheeses now, it is a very different time than when The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills opened in 1967!

When you think about it, we are wildly lucky here in the United States, interwoven in the fabric of our country are these rich, culturally diverse people, and with them come new aromas, flavors and our world palate is becoming quite expansive. With each generation we have these flavors becoming our staples, things that even our kids are familiar with…as much as I love France, and the French people….they don’t even have as big a range as the American palate has. Now I’m not saying that we as Americans have better palates, the sheer volume of crap chain restaurants and cases of Charles Shaw that we support is a pretty clear indicator that we don’t, but for a relatively young country, we’ve tasted and incorporated an amazingly vast array of flavors into our lives.

This realization set forth a very cool debate about those, quickly becoming archaic “rules” about food and wine. Yvonne being a chef and a student of wine back when wine was something for the “fine dining” crowd or something that people’s grandfather made in the basement and me, with my “drink what you like, and those stupid red wine with meat rules are lame” attitude, slammed together and after coming up for air we came to an agreement, the American palate is evolving and we wine folk need to pull our head out of our asses, dust off our crusty ideas and welcome more people to the wine drinking party.

The amount of money this country spends on expanding their palate education is staggering and I fear that the secular world of wine may be cutting off their nose to spite their face….get over yourselves already. When those, what-to-drink-with-what rules were in place no one was eating Pho or Korean BBQ right? I know, those conservative folks are going to throw out the, “Well, they don’t grow wine in Vietnam or Korea” comments….dude, seriously? You think they don’t grow wine there because their food is not wine appropriate?! Could it maybe have something to do with, climate, soil or culture…maybe? Maybe I’m just getting cranky in my nearing 40 years, but that kind of arrogance and woefully tiresome verbage just pisses me off and smacks of people that are stuck and are not evolving.

Don’t get me wrong, I have my “ewe, you’re gonna drink that with…that” moments, (funny thing is most of those are things like California Cabernet Sauvignon with something like Prime Rib or any wine with chocolate…you know, some of those “classics”) but I would never presume to tell others that they can’t…or shouldn’t. I mean is it not the job of the wine specialist to help people find the best wine for whatever it is they are eating? Our job, as I understand it, is to use our vast experience and knowledge of flavor profiles to help people enhance what is on their table and hopefully grow our business by making wine comfortable for everyone. I think cutting out chunks of our consumers, that may have a table full of food from non wine growing regions, is not only exclusionary and shallow, in a business sense it is just plain stupid.

Open minds and palates are a win-win for everyone.

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