Monday, October 10, 2011

Flexing My Slippery Muscle

“I hate to do this to you”

I had been in the shop a little over an hour after being off for what felt like for-ever. Off Sunday, half day and then inventory Monday then off Tuesday and Wednesday. I like my off time as much as the next chick but I had two events this week to prepare for, which of course means trying to handle that madness from home plus, well just not being in the shop for that long simply feels off to me. Takes me awhile to get back into my flow and now here I was, looking at four little plates, each holding a plastic knife and rectangular slab of chocolate covered something.

“I hate to do this to you but can you help me pick wines to go with these?” looked up from the desk that now resembled a dessert table to see Ronnie, my sweet adorable Ronnie, (our Bordeaux, Italian, Spanish and Port wine buyer) looking at me with that, “Dude, help me out here” face. Four plates of cake-ish looking stuff, Ronnie’s mug and I glanced over my shoulder to see a somewhat young and handsome man, in a Baskin Robbins embroidered shirt giving me the same eyes that Ronnie was. Dropped my stack of, “Handle me” papers, plastered on my brightest grin and gave Ronnie that flash of green eyes that let him know that I am so there and ready to help. 

Spent the next twenty minutes slicing into tiny chocolate covered ice cream cakes, (perfect size really but I do not recommend trying to cut these fuckers. Each time I’d slice the hard chocolate sides would fall off in chunks and the ice cream would squish down into the cake layer. Just pick up and bite) and shuffle through the flavors, picking out things that I thought would pair nicely with certain wines. We told the cat right up front that coffee was the way to go but he wanted wine so goddamn it, I was going to do my best to offer up the best and most diverse selection I could. Have to say, the cakes were nowhere near a sweet as I had assumed they would be giving me a much wider range of wines to play with….well aside from that mint chip bastard, had nothing but Port and Banyuls for him on that one. Thinking now I should have tossed that CocoVino Mint garbage at the guy but, well he seemed nice enough and I have to appreciate anyone looking to find ways to drink more wine right?

Ronnie and the ice cream guy were both so very appreciative and I even got me a handful of Baskin Robbins gift certificates out of the deal. Gonna come in handy now that my wee boyfriend is surrounded by younger women all day, (fucking kindergarten) maybe if I can keep him in ice cream, and sprinkles, I can hold on to that little love affair just a little longer. Tucked my, “Man keeper” certificates in my backpack and got back to a much bigger, for me anyway, project. Preparing for my annual Cheese & Wine Fest.

Have I mentioned before that I am an absolute and total geek when it comes to shit like this? I know most people think, “Cheese and wine is a no brainer” and I’ve been to their events, might want to check into those brainer things. I was talking to a coworker that was a collector long before he got in this business and he too has a rather laissez faire attitude about wine and cheese and how the two work together. I respect the hell out of the guy but, well he and I are about fifteen thousand miles apart when it comes to the actual chemistry of what works and what doesn’t. I spend like an hour picking my order before a tasting; running back and forth, seeing how each wine builds on the next and he, well he lines them up by price, always. Not sure my way makes any difference to anyone other than me but, it does in fact make a difference to me and if I’m to present something I’m going to do my best to ensure that each wine is placed where they will be able to show their best. Just a freak that way I guess.

I had most of my wines picked for the cheese and wine event but there were just a couple cheeses that I was on the fence about. Pretty sure I was over thinking the whole deal but as I said, that event has my name on it and I wasn’t about to just throw crap together and hope that it worked. Chilled a couple whites and pulled a red or two, told Ronnie I needed his input and then went for what I was sure was to be my ace in the hole, Dale Kemner.

Dale is Randy’s wife and co-owner of The Wine Country. She loves wine and knows far more about it than she is willing to give herself credit for. Not a geek and not an obsessive buyer, but an amazing cook with a fantastic palate. I knew I needed “Not a Geek” to help keep Ronnie and I from obsessing. If she thought it was tasty than that was all I needed. The three of us gathered in the kitchen where I had already sliced off pieces of the cheeses I was still needing wines for. I had nibbled while slicing and noticed an….issue with one cheese but the funny thing, it was only after following another. Got my troops with me in the back and instructed them to taste the cheeses first, (so bossy!) and that was when I mentioned that I was getting a fierce bitterness on one of the cheeses when tasted in a certain order, and that bitter thing got far worse when I drank a glass of water to try and make it stop. They ran through, Ronnie got no bitterness whatsoever but Dale, well she wasn’t sure it was bitter but found something unpleasant when re-tasting the cheese that was giving me trouble.

 Other pairings were made, quite easily might I add but this one bastard of a cheese simply would not play well with others. Was fascinating to me, watching Dale and I recoil when almost every wine shot this metallic, bitter thing around the sides of our tongues, waiting for Ronnie’s face to pinch up and react as well and….nothing. He wasn’t loving any combinations we tried with the cheese but he was not having the same rather dramatically off putting experience that we were.  Made me think of all those people that insist that tasting is not at all subjective, utter horseshit. There was a definitely some sort of chemistry happening here, the reactions to that chemistry, between three people with highly sensitive palates, astoundingly varied. After a rather unpleasant, but truly interesting thirty minutes tasting, dumping, making “Yuck” faces and popping more corks Ronnie came up with something that was, well it wasn’t bad. Not a great combination but at least both things weren’t completely destroyed by each other, and while not what I strive for with this event, (I aim for tremendous, am okay with delicious but with this one, well I was fine settling for not bad) I was just going to have to quiet my inner geek and just roll with it.

Final Lineup

Drunken Goat & 2010 Osseus Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc – Drunken Goat is a Spanish goat’s milk cheese that is soaked in red wine which gives the exterior a deep purple color, (rather pretty against the stark white interior of the cheese) but doesn’t impart any real wine flavor. This pairing was all about freshness. The Osseus was nervy as hell, bright acid, tangy fruit and the cheese seemed to just wrap itself around your palate softening the blow from the young wine’s acidity.

Idiazabel & NV Lustau Fino Sherry – Idiazabel is a lightly smoked Spanish sheep’s milk cheese with a dry and crumbly texture. This was my favorite pairing of the day but somewhat controversial. I actually used a vegetable peeler to slice this cheese as I wanted thin, lacy pieces that would melt the delicate smoky, fiercely nutty flavors on the tongue. The shockingly dry Sherry, (which I know is not for everyone) took on a remarkable complexity when paired with that cheese and I think Dale said it best, “It’s as if they were meant to be”. 

Explorateur & NV Pierre Peters Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc – Explorateur is a rindless triple cream cow’s milk cheese from Champagne….therefore this was kind of a cheat. I thought of this pairing as kind of a reward for everyone after challenging them with Fino Sherry. The cheese while rich, ultra-creamy and supremely decadent still has a freshness that, unlike a triple cream brie, leaves an airy and light note on the palate and paired with the curvy, powerful but regal Pierre Peters, sublime.

Caved Aged Gruyere & 2009 Bruno Colin Bourgogne Blanc – This aged version of the affable Gruyere, a French cow’s milk cheese, is far more intense and palate coating, explosively fruity and nutty with a richness that was matched by Colin’s deeply extracted 2009 Chardonnay. 

Le Vache de Chalais & 2010 Clusel Traboules Coteaux du Lyonnais – Le Vache de Chalais is as fantastically appealing visually as it is delicious. This dense and earthy French cow’s milk cheese comes wrapped in chestnut leaves, a creamy little packet of, “Damn”. Because of the earthy richness and salty rusticity of the cheese I paired it with the Clusel Traboules, a Gamay that has all the light, bright, fresh flavors that the grape embodies but has just a bit of firmness…grip of tannin on the finish that you don’t typically find in the wines from Beaujolais. This was one of the pairings where the cheese was the star, the wine lifting it and tempering the earthy notes in the most beautiful way.

Pilota Onetik & 2008 Zuazo Gaston Rioja – This cheese was the reason I wanted to do another wine and cheese event. In all my years of tasting, eating and buying cheeses for the store I can only think of one other time that I was brought to my knees over a goddamn piece of cheese. A Basque sheep’s milk cheese that has a shiver inducing creamy texture and a refined, almost regal, salty, fruity and green olive like flavor. I could have paired that cheese with any wine on the table, well aside from the Fino….tried it, not so much. Ronnie had suggested that I pair it with the Zuazo Gaston Rioja that I had a little affair going with and the combination was brilliant. Both things were delicious on their own but brought together they were so much more explosive….seductive. Unreal.

Dried Vella Jack & 2006 Ottimino Von Weildich Zinfandel – My tribute to California. Few cheeses are more ubiquitous than Jack but this one year aged version is something entirely different. The texture reminds you of a great Parmesan; dried, oily and loaded with intense sweetness. Paired with the lovely and restrained Ottimino had even my most devoted French wine lovers saying, “This, this could get me to drink Zinfandel again”.

Fromager des Clarines & 2009 Domaine de Joy Saint Andre – A cow’s milk cheese modeled after France’s prized Vacherin which is nearly impossible to get here in the states. Unbelievably creamy and gooey, this bloomy rind cheese was bounced around a bit as far as partners and each time, came out on top but something about the Domaine de Joy pairing made me weak in the knees. The rather unusual wine from Gascony, made from Gros Manseng, is beautiful little sweet wine that always reminds me of dried apricots but with a swath of thick and oily Clarines in your mouth this delightful and very pronounced grapefruit note emerges from the wine, giving the pairing just enough tang to keep it from being over the top. 

Bastard Cheese aka Zola Gouda & 2010 Elio Perrone Moscato d’Asti – Zola is a young Gouda and is truly wonderful, on its own. Firm but chewy texture, nice fruit and a hint of sweetness but it is really a cheese that belongs melted, on a fruit plate or just munched on. Not going to wax rhapsodic on this pairing, it was what it was. On a side note; a customer sweetly brought me lemon bars from her favorite bakery in Sierra Madre, restrained lemon flavor, butter and cream and with the Elio Perrone it tempered the sweetness in the wine leaving all that perfume and wild flowers….was my second favorite pairing of the day.

Roaring 40s Blue & 2009 Francois Chidaine Moelleux Montlouis sur Loire – Roaring 40s is a slightly sweet cow’s milk blue from King’s Island in Australia. Serious blue veining, pate a dark beige, quite sweet and very intense, this cheese is absolutely delicious and sells out almost every time I feature it. I knew I wanted a sweet wine and Chidaine’s late picked Chenin was a perfect partner. Big, rich, heavy and, for me anyway, a little too aggressive to drink on its own, the powerful blue synced up perfectly. A monstrous climax of flavors and textures and, if I do say so myself, a damn fine exclamation point of a finish.

I know I stress far more than I should about these Cheese & Wine events, I mean there are ten wines and ten cheeses, chances are people are going to be elated but….well I am just so, (maybe too) passionate about both that I ache to pull others into this weird little world I live in. This world saturated in aromas, textures, flavors and how the right combination of all three can take your breath away. From ice cream to cheese, I flexed my slippery muscle and through all the stress and concerns, the “yuck” faces and “really? Ice cream?” moments, loved every, single, last, second of it....


Thomas said...

That sounds like a wine and cheese event that I need to attend someday.

The pairings sounded--tasted--wonderful from here.

How do you get people to clear their palate between tastes, or do you even try?

Samantha Dugan said...

Dude, would love it if you attended sometime. I have to say this was one of my favorites in all of my Wine & Cheese Fests. Seems like each year there is one pairing that just knocks everyone out, steals the show and leaves the other 9 wines and cheeses in its wake. So this year it was my goal to have a more restrained and ultimately broader tasting experience for people. I really o feel like I accomplished that this time. Did a little informal poll and the favorites were all over the map...damn, I dig that.

The absolute hardest part about this event is the lineup. Hard enough with wine but now I have to not only have the sequence of wines make sense, the cheeses also have to be placed in an order that won't blow out the next pairing. A lot harder than it seems. People ate bread in between but I made sure that the order and flow would work and build on each other. Yet another reason that fucking Zola was my problem child. In the end I was very happy and our customers, well they seemed to be too.

Selyndria said...

I'm so glad you loved the lemon bars. That pairing was quite delicious and we plan on picking up some more bottles of that Moscato and sharing that pairing with friends on a cold winter night when that fresh lemon dessert and the flowers in the wine knock everyone's socks off.

You did an amazing job with the pairings. Every time I thought I had a favorite, I had a new favorite.

You'll laugh because we went to the Jazz and Wine walk up in Sierra Madre after your tasting and while it was fun to check out all the businesses and sip wine, my boyfriend and I agreed the only really spectacular thing about it was the fabulous music and getting to walk around the streets holding a wine glass. The wines were Meh and the with the exception of one place, the food items and the wines served in each place were horrible when paired together.

Oh and I made the dressing and it was a super-hit. I also pan seared my steaks and then deglazed with a bit of vodka. Took about 1/2 cup of the dressing, added the deglazed drippings to it and it became this incredible sauce for the steaks and sauteed veggies. Your recipe, Girl, it has legs!

webb said...

When can I move to California? both the cheeses and the wine sound to-die-for and I will never find them here. You make me long for them.

Samantha Dugan said...

Those lemon bars were the best, the BEST I have ever had. Thank you so much for sharing them with me and thank you so much for your continued support of the store, wines and cheeses I have spent the past 15 years of my life in love with. It is people like you that make my job, (seems shameful to call it that at times) so rewarding and fucking fun as hell.

Thrilled you liked the dressing recipe and that you spun your wicked little flare on it!

I've missed you!! I thought I had gone too far in my woe is me blubbering and had lost you. So happy to find that you have not forsaken me for like STEVE! or anything. Thanks for letting me know you are still here, made my day.

Marcia Macomber said...

Salivating! Absolutely salivating over that line up and your descriptions of each one.

We are lucky here in that the cheesemonger is adjacent to the wine shop in the Oxbow Market. They've had some wonderful pairings and flights that were clearly very well thought out.

And it's lovely to be able to say, "We're drinking [fill-in-the-wine-here]; what would you pair with it?" He's always spot on with his recommendations. Not something you find everywhere.

Perhaps someday we can do a virtual wine & cheese pairing you've recommended....