Cheese can certainly be charming on its own, but when people combine it with heat, sweet and savory accompaniments, the product can be damn near blissful. Of course, some people are better with pairing than others, and we felt comfortable in the hands of San Francisco based cheese expert and James Beard Award winning cookbook author Laura Werlin, who presented at the Inn at Spanish Bay during Pebble Beach Food & Wine.
“If any of you had lunch plans, I’d cancel them.” That’s how Werlin started proceedings, touting “truly the breakfast of champions.” It isn’t often that breakfast contains so much cheese, or includes wine pairings, but nobody in the crowd complained.
1) “You want to taste wine before you taste cheese…because you need to taste the wine on a clean palate.”
2) “Oak is often the enemy of cheese. To have the mouthfeel and taste of chardonnay without oak is the perfect wine for cheese.”
3) “Off dry is going to work with a wider variety of cheeses than full dry.”
4) “It doesn’t matter what bread it is, [the slice] needs to be no more than a half-inch thickness…On balance, I use white bread or sourdough. If it’s too dense [like pumpernickel], it doesn’t get crisp, and if it’s not crisp, it’s not a good grilled cheese sandwich.”
5) “You have a big wine, you can’t choose a big cheese, because they’re going to compete. You can’t choose a wimpy cheese either, because you’re not going to taste it.”
6) “Blue cheese with sweet wine is kind of a no brainer.”
Still, the crux of the lecture focused on the pairings. “I’m not creating dishes to go with wine,” said Werlin. “I’m creating dishes, and hopefully I can find a beverage to go with it.”
She presented cheese and samples of dishes with Chuck Wagner from the Wagner family of wines, whose family came to Napa in the 1800s, and eventually had their operation decimated by Prohibition. Chuck Wagner’s father replanted vineyard in 1960s, and he just finished the 40th harvest, expanding beyond Cabernet, and beyond Napa to the Santa Lucia Highlands.
Wine #1: Our first pour was 2010 Mer Soleil SILVER un-oaked Chardonnay, served in a ceramic bottle, and fermented and aged in cement tanks, which Wagner called a “clean, fresh expression of chardonnay.”
Cheese #1: Werlin started us at the top of the cheese plate, 12:00, with a golden grassfed cow’s milk cheese from Edelweiss Cheese Company made in the traditional Emmentaler style, in copper pots, in 120 pound wheels.
Cheese #2: Emmi Roth Kase “Grand Cru Gruyere” is the only one made in traditional style. Copper pots are technically not allowed in the U.S. since copper has corrosive properties, but we’ll keep that secret if you do.
Cheese #3: Uplands Cheese Company makes “Pleasant Ridge Reserve” between May and October when cows grub on the optimal 8-12 inch pasture during rotational grazing. Retirement project that was inspired by amazing dairy, patterned after Beaufort, from France.
Dish #1: Werlin’s grilled cheese combined the first three cheeses, pickled shallots and watercress.
Cheese #4: Cypress Grove “Chevre” “Ms. Natural” is a tangy fresh goat cheese made in Humboldt.
Wine #2: Wagner described 2010 Conundrum as “not a purist’s wine,” since it’s a white wine made from five varietals of grapes grown from Santa Barbara to Napa counties.
Cheese #5: Schoch Family Farmstead named their Monterey Jack for local trader David Jack, as is the Monterey Jack tradition.
#6: Widmer’s Cheese Cellars Colby is a mild cheese dyed orange with annato that originated in Colby, Wisconsin.
Dish #2: Werlin delivered another grilled cheese with cheeses 4, 5, and 6, plus bacon, guacamole, tomatoes and crushed, buttery tortilla chips.
Wine #3: Chuck Wagner named 2010 Belle Glos “Las Alturas” Pinot Noir for the maiden name of his mother. Son Joe made it in the Santa Lucia Highlands.
Cheese #7: Kerrygold Aged Cheddar is the result of co-op milk in Ireland pooled to make cheeses, the best known being Dubliner.
Wine #4: 2008 Caymus Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon is the winery’s hallmark varietal. Chuck Wagner’s father drank that wine twice a day, religiously, and passed at age 90. This “wine has a combination of texture and fruit,” said Wagner, as opposed to previous goal of “acidity and fruit.”
Dish #3: Werlin’s addictive classic mac and cheese utilized Kerrygold aged cheddar and Kerrygold butter, which joined other sandwiches and macs as well. The mac also gained sweetness from the onion and crunch from breadcrumbs.
Wine #5: 2004 Mer Soleil Late Harvest White features Viognier grapes left on the vine. They pick up “noble not” of Vetritus, without having to contend with rain, resulting in cracked skins. They press and ferment the grapes until they achieve 10% ABV. The white wine ages well, and displayed honey like sweetness.
Cheese #8: Our final cheese was Rogue Creamery “Smokey Blue,” a smoked blue.
Dish #4: Werlin made cac with Smokey Blue, leeks, and cayenne, and it will have hazelnuts in Werlin’s upcoming cookbook.
Dish #5: Our bonus sandwich featured Ms. Natural, Nutella and Driscoll raspberries on white bread with butter. She paired the sweet sandwich with the late harvest white.
Werlin’s early words did prove prescient, because we pretty much did cancel lunch plans, but it was worth it for the sake of cheese and education.
Note: Pebble Beach Food & Wine hosted me at Cooking With Cheese.