Monday, March 15, 2010

Humbled By A Goddamn Piece Of Cheese

So The Wine Country’s Wine & Cheese Fest is one of our biggest tastings of the year…well seeing as Randy has taken it from an annual event to a couple-times-a-year event, I guess I should say, “They” are the biggest tastings of the year. We always have a massive turnout, people piled atop one another before giant wheels of cheese, picking and smearing while we pour them the wines that I have chosen to pair with each. Loads of fun for the customer, (aside from it being packed) and a very labor intensive day for me and my ever hard working helper Merritt. She and I are elbow deep in cheese from 10:00 am when we open, this is when we start hacking into the giant wheels…chopping, chunking and plating on heavy slaps of granite. We plate the last round at about 12:50, ten minutes before the tasting starts and then we are there pouring, chopping as needed and explaining what it is people are eating and drinking until 4:00….and then it’s time to clean up and wrap the leftovers. By 2:30 she and I are both giving each other the, “Holy crap my back is screaming” look and taking any spare seconds we have to bend over and try and stretch out the cheese chopping induced “T” of pain that runs across the top of our backs and then shoots down the center to right above our rumps. Like I said, labor intensive but that is actually the easiest part…the hardest is the pairings.

“No one really cares or can even tell about the pairings” a cynical employee’s comment when I was compiling my cheeses for the event. “Well first of all I disagree, I think they do care and as someone that has been doing this event for almost ten years now I can assure you that many, if not most people do get it” I snapped. “Secondly, I happen to care very much. This is my event, this is something I happen to be pretty good at and if it has my name on it I am going to make sure I have done everything I can to make it as flawless as possible. I love watching that little light go on when people taste a pairing that just “works” or better yet, sings…I live for that shit and it makes me happy…so shut up”

Now I will be the first to admit that there are people that come to this event to just drink and eat massive amounts of cheese, they don’t pay attention to what is going on in their mouths. They blissfully munch cheese, chat with their friends while slurping whatever is in their glass, they don’t care about the pairings and I’m okay with that…but the majority of people that turn out for this tasting are in fact interested and totally into it. I know this because they are asking me a million questions throughout the event and the gush their compliments all over me for hours and even weeks afterwards. I’ve even seen some of those munching slurping folks make the, “Damn that’s good” face with a few of the pairings….that’s when I know I’ve done good as it were.

The question I am hit with the most often during these tastings is, “How do you know?” and the cheeky answer I respond with is, “That’s what they pay me for” which is in fact true. My job is to know and understand the subtleties and the primary flavors of the cheeses and wines I order….the skill part comes in when you are putting the two things together. It’s pretty easy to take a beautiful wine and put it with a great cheese and have it taste fine, but you see….you have just reduced “beautiful” and “great” to fine, not really all that successful in my book. When you can take two things, put them together and make them even better….well that is the shit that I love and what I strive to do with these tastings.

So I’m not sure if I have mentioned it or not but I have one peeve about this business…okay that’s a giant lie, I have many but one of my biggest undie tweakings comes from those that spout off about the shit they think they know or barf up old, no longer relevant information or praise. This drives me batshit…please spare me the crusty adoration for wineries that were once the shit but have long since been surpassed in quality. Sure Jadot, Jobard and Joguet were once the best, (that you could get at the time anyway) but when was the last time you tasted them and what else have you tasted…lately?! Not knocking those wines per see but as someone that has her mouth around some of the other wines that are being imported, admittedly thanks to the afore mentioned opening the door for them, there are some other wines that are doing it cleaner, fresher, cheaper and winning the hearts of those of us that don’t have import blinders strapped to our heads. I have no problem giving a nod to those that came before, appreciating them for paving the way but….please, just get caught up and stop tossing about information that may no longer hold weight in the here and now.

Yeah, so my very own peeve came up and buried its seething fangs into my ass this week. Fucking Piave, a cheese I thought I knew, a cheese I had tasted a billion times, a cheese I actually ordered as an “easy” pairing cheese for Saturday’s event….argh. So Friday afternoon I was putting the final list together for Saturday’s Cheese & Wine Fest, just feeling all smug and ready when I thought, “Oh I had better pick a wine for that Piave” and opened a piece as a refresher…mother effer! Um, this was so not the cheese I remembered, where was the kick and intensity? Where had the rich tang that I remembered gone? I sat there with this faintly fruity, crumbly, pretty mild cheese glaring at me and pointing its mild little finger at me…”Ha ha, you do it too” it mocked. Bastard, Piave is a bastard.

Somewhat vexed I let the cheese warm up to room temperature, thought warming it up might bring it to life…bring out all that flavor I thought I remembered, sigh. While there was bit of a bump in flavor from the leaving it out for hours the cheese was still lacking that little spank I was relying on…dammit. I finally went to Randy, “I am having a problem with this cheese” I alerted him. He took a good sized chunk and said, “This should be easy. This is a great cheese” and charged out to the front of the store to begin making his recommendations. He pointed out wines he thought might work, many of which were already being showcased. “Well okay let’s start trying some things” he announced and this was one of those moments when I could in fact rest on my memory. Watching Randy light up, bounce around the store, yank bottles and pull corks…break off pieces of cheese, taste them with the wine and then venture back out onto the floor looking for something that might fill the gaps that the last wine left. These are the memories of my wine youth, the inspiration for my willingness to tell my coworker to shut up, the reason I am never happy with, “good enough”…Randy. He is the reason and my inspiration, he will never settle, never let a wine rest on its history…neither will I.

We tasted about fifteen wines that afternoon, chunked off pieces of cheese, sipped and were out on the floor once again. There were moments when we shrugged our shoulders, “It’s okay” but Randy’s determined face and wish to make this event as thrilling as possible, sent him back out and popping more corks…my admiration of his determination and years of training by him had me shaking my head and having the courage to say, “Nope, that’s not it”. After about an hour we were started going back to some of the wines we had first thought might work, mostly sweeter white wines which are often the best choice for any cheese course. So here’s the thing…yet another thing about our business that drives me to crunched up crunders….with each wine we tasted adding a layer of seasoning to our palate our perception or astuteness to each little flavor was changed, affected and not as clear as it had been fifteen wines earlier. Had me festering about how useful tasting panels and reviews written after tasting multiple wines are to the person that is popping that cork and consuming the whole bottle….without the pre-seasoning. Humbling, this whole ordeal over one goddamn piece of mild cheese was so humbling and a giant reminder that we don’t know it all, we don’t have all the answers and no matter what we think we know….there is always time for a refresher. Easy pairing my ass….


John M. Kelly said...

I have a favorite Italian movie from 1977 called "Mogliamante" starring Marcello Mastroianni and Laura Antonelli, that was released as "Wifemistress" here in the States. Complicated plot, but one aspect - Marcello's character is a wine merchant, and when he disappears his wife takes over his business. Early on she receives some advice: "buy on bread, sell on cheese." That quote has stuck with me all these years.

The point to me has always been that wine and cheese is not really as easy a pairing as received wisdom would have us believe. Random pairings are often less than the sum of their parts, and it is usually the cheese that smashes the wine. I really appreciate the work that you guys have to put into finding the "right" pairing. In my experience the cases where the pairing is more than the sum of its parts are rare.

Thomas said...

I fear for that abused cat.

Samantha Dugan said...


I know there are people that think this is really easy or give it very little thought but as you pointed out, cheese is or can be a really big flavor....not to mention often has a fatty texture and really long finish, it really can cover or mask a lot of complexity in wine. I had people telling me all day Saturday, "I like these two things together better than each on their own" which is always my goal. I don't want to sell cheese or wine, I want to sell both.


I know right?! Poor kitty. Cannot remember what I Googled to find that but thought the whole "Fat Cat" thing worked.

Wines for the People said...

Great post, Sam. I think few people realize quite what they're asking when they ask for food and wine pairing reccomendations.

Nancy Deprez said...

Yeah, Merritt told me that the Piave was a challenge and I was shocked about that too. So, has Piave changed in flavor? I haven't had it in a while, and I thought this cheese went with all sorts of red wine - who knew?

Samantha Dugan said...

Wines for the People,

It's nothing I get too hung up on for the most part...the whole pairing deal but like I said, this was my event and I just wanted it to be as good as possible. Thanks for the comment.


I don't know if the cheese has changed or if I was just remembering it wrong. It was no where near as big as I thought I recalled it being, (see the problem with that kind of thinking you know crap) so everything I paired it with just kind of crushed it...made it vanish and it ended up being a pain in my ass.

Charlie Olken said...

Nice. I am not much of a cheese person. Like it an all that. Have fun with our occasional wine and cheese pairing adventures, but, on the whole, I am not a a cheese person.

So, I dutifully read through the story and I am waiting for the punch line when I find out that you have done it to me again. It turns out the punch line is not about the cheese but about variability and not taking anything for granted.

And, that, Sam, is why I have been in business for so long. Because one cannot take any wine for granted no matter what its track record.

I like the way you said it.

Charlie Olken said...

Nice. I am not much of a cheese person. Like it an all that. Have fun with our occasional wine and cheese pairing adventures, but, on the whole, I am not a a cheese person.

So, I dutifully read through the story and I am waiting for the punch line when I find out that you have done it to me again. It turns out the punch line is not about the cheese but about variability and not taking anything for granted.

And, that, Sam, is why I have been in business for so long. Because one cannot take any wine for granted no matter what its track record.

I like the way you said it.

Samantha Dugan said...

Sir Charles,
I am a cheese person. I adore cheese, don't eat it that often as I am around it 24/7 but when the hubby is out of town my #1 dinner choice is a bottle of wine and one or two pieces of horribly stinky cheese...he pisses and moans when I bring the stinky stuff home and he is there. You are correct though, the post was more about not taking things for granted or trusting that your memory of something is in fact correct, shit changes and it is our job, (yours and mine too) to have our palates reminded and all the time.

Thanks for posting love, not sure I needed it twice but I'll take it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful post on the complexities of pairing. There is adventure, bewilderment, and ultimately joy in what you do. It lifted my day.