America's Best: Boutique Cheese and Wine

Singly, and in twos and threes, twenty-somethings through fifty-somethings (and beyond) rushed into Deborah Orrill's Central Market cooking school in Dallas for the Friday night class.

We had one thing in common: we'd managed to secure a seat in this evening's sold-out tasting event.

Sleek professionals, Baylor dental students still in their scrubs, a tweed-clad gentleman who leads European tours and one lone cheese enthusiast from Frisco, Texas, were among more than 40 people who claimed a one- by two-foot stretch of table containing a fork, space for a small dinner plate, four unfilled wine glasses, and a tall glass of ice-water.

Baskets of fresh crusty cream-colored bread separated every third place setting. Spill buckets stood discretely within easy reach. Urns of hot coffee, boiling water and tea fixings awaited self-service at the back of the room.

Wisely, one of the dental students ran downstairs to grab a sandwich. She split it with her colleague. To get the most out of a tasting, you want to be neither hungry nor full.

Some chatted, some watched as the staff prepared 46 carefully arranged cheese plates.

Starting with a fan of crisp Asian pear slices, each plate contained a taste of Harley Farms Monet, Redwood Hill Farms Camellia, Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, Capriole Wabash Cannonball, Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Nancy's Camembert, Grafton Village three-year-old cheddar, Sonoma Dry Jack, and Amablu St. Peter's Blue, plus a generous sprinkling of Spanish Marcona almonds.

Conversations hummed as staff members Carl and Michelle poured the first wine into everyone's left-most glass while three volunteer helpers delivered the plates of cheese.

George Howald introduced the topic of boutique American wines, contrasting the goals of a small family run winery such as Mayo, with a wine conglomerate, whose goals after a recent acquisition are $3.2 billion in sales. Mayo Family Winery consists of Jeffrey Mayo with his parents and winemaker. They make about 6,000 cases of wine a year and do not want to exceed 10,000 cases.

Small production, of course, connotes exclusivity, and each has a story. The more we want to know about where our food comes from, the more we get into each of the stories.

Helen Duran explained how the levels of cheese producers parallel the levels of wine producers. Farmstead or farmhouse cheeses are made by hand on the farm from the milk from animals on the farm, and the cheeses are aged on the farm. A creamery makes cheese from purchased milk. At some creameries, the cheese maker is very close to the owner of the animals and very aware of the animals that are the source of the milk for the cheeses. Farther removed from the source animals, a dairy buys milk from many sources and does not necessarily know the sources of the milk that well. Last, there are factory cheese producers.

With each cheese and wine pairing we learned about the winemaker, the wine, the cheesemaker, the farm, and the cheese. Tasters' conversations became louder as the swift-paced two-hour structured tasting progressed. Still, the dedicated managed to hear the stories and to get all their questions answered by Helen and George.

Eight pairings of boutique American cheeses and wines provided a blockbuster experience. Choose any of the pairings that appeal to you and enjoy a mini-tasting of your own.

Pairing 1:
The cheese: Harley Farms in Pescadero, California, Monet. A fresh cheese made from goat's milk with a small amount of Herbes de Provence, decorated with golden marigold and violet Johnny-jump-up petals.
The wine: Eberle 2001 Mill Road Vineyard Viognier. Paso Robles, California. 100% Viognier, 14.0% alcohol. ($19.99)
Why it works: The peach, apricot, and honeysuckle fruit of the Eberle Viognier contrasts well with the mildly chalky, milky-tasting, slightly herbaceous and creamy soft cheese. A delightful match in taste and geography.

Pairing 2:
The cheese:Redwood Hill Farms in Sonoma, California, Camellia. The size of a doughnut without a hole, Camellia is one of three rind ripened French-style cheeses Jennifer Bice makes from the milk of her goats. If you haven't seen Redwood Hill's Camellia, imagine a small French Camembert or Brie. Rind can be ugly or scary if cheese is new to you, but attractive and admirable to those familiar with cheese. The Camellia rind appears to be powdery white when young and can be mottled white when ready to eat. The cheese should be eaten when it is white. When the mold dies back and the cheese becomes brownish or rust colored, it is over ripe. Jennifer is from a farming family and is known for breeding goats that produce milk with a higher than usual butterfat content. In fact, she has bred goats for other farms, including Harley Farms and Cypress Grove. The Camellia is an accomplishment; it's difficult to make cheese from high fat milk because it tends to separate.
The wine:Turnbull 2000 Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Grown, Oakville, Napa Valley ($15.79). Contains a little Viognier and Malvasia Bianca. 14.1% alcohol. 8,200 cases produced. Aromas of orange, lemon, and lime. Good flavor and long finish. A Sauvignon Blanc you want to take home. Silver medal winner in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition.
Why it works:The fruit, aroma, and finish of the Turnbull from Napa are a wonderful match for the creamy interior and slightly chalky crust of the Camellia from nearby Sonoma.

Pairing 3:
The cheese:Cypress Grove in Humboldt County, California, Humboldt Fog. A ripened goat's milk cheese. The full size cheese is the size of a small, two-layer cake. There is a layer of edible ash in the center and under the exterior rind-where you'd expect frosting in a cake. The cheese maker, Mary Keehn, says she fashioned the cheese and named it after the California North Coast weather: it is reminiscent of a perfect foggy day. If you're familiar with French Morbier, you'll notice a similar appearance because of the use of ash in the center. The cheese for tonight's tasting was in perfect condition and clean tasting. The center, or paste, has a chalky appearance but is creamy in the mouth, and next to the rind there's a silky smooth lining. When I met Mary last summer she told me her cheeses are no longer considered farmstead cheeses because she now concentrates on making the cheeses and purchases milk from suppliers whose goats she knows well. The Humboldt Fog quality is not diminished in any way by not being a farmstead cheese.
The wine:we continued with the Turnbull Sauvignon Blanc. Turnbull's 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon is in the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2002.
Why it works:Sauvignon Blanc is a classic pairing with young soft ripened goat milk cheeses. Both the 2000 Turnbull Sauvignon Blanc and the Humboldt Fog are excellent examples of their genres. In general, you can successfully pair light, fruity, aromatic white wine with light colored, soft, creamy goat cheeses. Another generalization that leads to charming pairings is to choose a beverage from the same region as the cheese.

Pairing 4:
The cheese: Capriole, Greenville, Indiana (Southern Indiana), Wabash Cannonball. Capriole's cheeses are farmstead cheeses because the cheese makers, Judith Schad and her daughter Kate, make them on their own farm, using the milk from their own goats-300 of them, Alpine, Saanen and Nubian. The Wabash Cannonball is a three-ounce ball of goat cheese with a rind of ash and white mold. As this ball-shaped (crottin-style) cheese ages, a pattern of dark raised edges develops all over, and the inside develops from chalky-creamy to dry. The cheese should not be wet with moisture or cracked and it should not smell ammoniated. This is the first time I've tasted an aged Wabash Cannonball and it was delightful. The interior was dry and tasty.
The wine:Schramsberg 1998 Blanc de Noir ($30.99). Sparkling wine from Napa Valley, primarily Pinot Noir with a portion of Chardonnay.
Why it works:The lightly fruity bubbly wine contrasted well with the slightly salty aged chèvre. Pinot Noir contributes strawberry-cherry fruit and the Chardonnay contributes complexity. George selected this wine to demonstrate to tasters that you can successfully taste a sparkling wine after a white wine, and it worked. I suspect you could have continued with the Turnbull, or started with the Ramey. Interestingly, the Schramsberg winery was established in 1862 and the Schad family farm, though not a goat farm at the time, was established around 1830.

Pairing 5:
The cheese:Old Chatham Shepherding Company, Old Chatham, New York, Nancy's Camembert. A mix of sheep (ewe) and cow's milk, this tastes more like a triple-crème than a Camembert, because the cheese maker adds cream. If the cheese is firm, leave it out of the refrigerator longer. A light-textured but rich and elegant cheese.
The wine:Ramey 2000 Russian River Chardonnay ($38.99). David Ramey's respected winemaking career includes Simi, Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus, and Rudd Estate, whose facility he uses for the wine bearing his own label. I could smell rich fruit as this wine was being poured. There is nothing austere about this wine, from the deep color to the nose to the big body and taste.
Why it works:The almost viscous fruit and aroma of the Ramey Russian River Chardonnay was beautiful with the full-flavored creaminess of Nancy's Camembert.

Pairing 6:
The cheese:Grafton Village Cheese Company, Grafton, Vermont, Grafton Gold Cheddar. Grafton is a creamery in which everything is done by hand. All the milk is from Jersey cows, whose milk has a high butterfat content. This three-year-old cheddar is hand-cut into blocks, protected in a dark colored triple wax coating.
The wine:Rutz 2000 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, 14.2% alcohol ($22.19). Rutz reveres both the science and the art of winemaking, using traditional Burgundian methods: hand picking and hand-sorting individual bunches of flawless fruit. A blend, the grapes come from Dutton Ranch and Martinelli vineyards. 1,208 cases.
Why it works:The cheddar has buttery richness that works well with the cherry and dark berry fruit of the Rutz Sonoma Coast Pinot. Neither a huge wine nor a huge cheese, the flavors of each shine through in this excellent match.

Pairing 7:
The cheese:Sonoma Cheese Company, Sonoma, California, Dry Jack Cheese. You might be familiar with the similar Vella Dry Jack.
The wine:Mayo 2000 Russian River Valley, Ricci Vineyard Reserve Zinfandel, 15.9% alcohol ($43.99, Robert Parker 91).
Why it works:This aged dry Jack is always a good choice for rich, deep flavor. It is rubbed with cocoa to protect the cheese naturally as it ages, but the cocoa is not central to the flavor of the cheese. It was startling to discover that the finish on the Mayo suddenly becomes pure chocolate. Every sip of this luscious Mayo Family wine produced the same taste.

Pairing 8:
The cheese:Amablu, Faribault, Minnesota, St. Pete's Select Blue. This cheese is exciting because it is a cave aged American blue cheese. A fairly new cheese, it will be interesting to taste in the future, when we can get it with more age on it.
The wine:Mer Soleil 2000 "Late" ($35.99).
Why it works:The late harvest Viognier from the Santa Lucia Mountains in Monterey County has enough richness to stand up to this blue cheese aged in historic sandstone caves in Minnesota. The wine has a very long finish with butterscotch and caramel flavors.

Six Tips for Cheese Tasting at Home

1. Taste each cheese when you buy it. When in doubt, ask the cheese seller to taste it and tell you about it. Boutique cheese - also known as artisanal cheese - is very expensive, so be sure you have a perfect specimen. Good goat cheese does not taste or smell like a goat.

2. Serve cheese at room temperature. Usually leaving a cheese out of the refrigerator at home for one hour is enough, but in a Dallas air-conditioned home, it can take more than an hour for the cheese to reach its optimum serving temperature.

3. Put a familiar ingredient, such as apple slices or nuts, on each plate so the tasters can orient their plates and compare impressions as they proceed through the ordered tasting.

4. Have bread and water available.

5. Taste the cheese by itself to know its flavor. Use the bread to clear your palate. If you don't like a cheese, eat some bread and fruit before tasting the next one.

6. Some cheeses have edible rinds. Ask the cheese seller if you don't know whether or not the rind is edible. All the cheeses mentioned above that have rinds have edible rinds. Taste the rind if you want to and if it's edible. If you don't like the texture or taste of the rind, don't eat it.

Cheese and wine can differ from batch to batch, year to year, season to season. As you become very familiar with a cheese or a wine, you'll find other successful non-traditional pairings.

For information about cheese classes, contact Central Market in Dallas at 214.361.5754 or Central Market in Plano at 469.241.9339. Whole Foods has added a classroom to its expanded Plano store and will offer classes soon. To see cheese being made by hand daily in Dallas, contact Paula Lambert at The Mozzarella Company, 214.741.4072.
Karen Silverston 2/7/2003