Wine and Cheese (Tasting) in American Gastronomy
As I showed earlier, in 1936 and 1939 The Wine and Food Society of New York (NYWFS) held seminal wine and cheese tastings, events regarded at the time as novel. Indeed they have no precedent I am aware of. Any similar events held earlier were probably sponsored by another international branch of the Wine and Food Society, founded by gastronome André Simon in London in 1933.
The New York branch continued its wine tastings during the war although seemingly on a reduced scale; this was due of course to wartime constraints. Few if any wines from France, Italy and certainly Germany were tabled. Also, surviving wartime menus as set out in the digital menu collection of the New York Public Library (www.nypl.org) appear stripped down. They contain few introductory and taste notes, and the layout is rather minimal. See for example the menu for the (nonetheless arresting) 1944 sparkling wine tasting, here.
Needing find decent domestic or other available wines, no doubt the New Yorkers, so inadvertently in other words, gained a familiarity with good American table wines, early days as it was for the revived industry. The slow but steady appreciation of American wine after World War II in some part can be laid to these wartime tastings, in my opinion.
True, the clusters tasting were small, but in cultural matters small can be influential. Influential figures like James Beard, Craig Clairborne, Julia Child, and Myra Waldo (among others) would have attended or known of these events in the mid-1940s.
In March 1945, with the war almost ended, the New York group held its Tasting of Red Wines, Cheeses and Cheese Biscuits. The venue was the iconic Hotel Pierre, on Fifth Avenue. Before discussing their approach I might mention that the Society did not normally pair cheese with wines, a few beer tastings apart where an older tradition of matching cheese with beer was continued.
Many NYWFS wine tastings between 1933 and the mid-1950s mention no food at all or at most cheese straws or simple biscuits. At Christmas time, cakes, mince pies, and similar eatables might be offered. Some events did include ham or oysters, however.
The NYWFS was an innovator for the “wine and cheese” of today – star of vernissage, fund-raiser, and what have you – but it took time for the general culture to view the pairing as routine. The pace gathered in the early 1950s as I’ve documented in other posts.
A good example of early wine and cheese sophistication by the NYWFS was its 1945 Pierre Hotel event. Clearly this was not a mass public event like the 1939 tasting that attracted (see my post linked above) 400-500 people, but a regular Society event that likely attracted a small core.
The Pierre event
This tasting is notable on numerous accounts. First, the war had not quite ended, with Germany’s surrender coming seven weeks later. Cabernets and pinots from choice Californian vineyards were tabled, many with some years of age. Some vineyards still exist or are well-remembered, e.g., Simi, Louis Martini, Christian Brothers, and Beaulieu. Beaulieu in particular was a progenitor of the prestige boutique California winery of today.
Surprisingly modern taste notes were offered. A Fountain Grove 1939 Sonoma Cabernet was called “soft”, with “excellent bouquet and flavour”. An Inglenook Pinot was compared favourably to a good French Burgundy. Peruse the menu for these impressions of 71 years ago, it’s much as one speaks of wine today, and for the same types: Cabernet, Pinot, Zinfandel, and Italian-style wines. An Italian type was said to resemble a Chianti, so fair praise.
Most wines were Californian but a couple were from other American regions including Ohio. American winemaking outside California was widespread before Prohibition and some of it came back after Prohibition.
The ports served were both American and Portuguese, the Iberian bottles probably prewar stock although perhaps neutral Portugal shipped some wine to America during the war.
The cheeses were domestic or from Mexico, Argentina (a blue cheese), and Canada (Oka Trappist and cheddar). Two cheeses bearing French and Italian names, Camembert and Bel Paese, were probably American-made.
One of the most interesting cheeses was a goat cheese from Arkansas that used “mineralized goat milk”. Mineralized how, one wonders… Hopefully from the soil. The taste note is much as one would read in a food or wine magazine today
Crackers and cheese straws rounded out a very interesting event, in more than equable surroundings…
N.B. Argentina still produces blue cheeses. One is pictured above, the San Ignacio.
Note re images: The first image above was extracted from the original 1945 menu linked in the text, available courtesy the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org. The second was obtained from the producer’s website, here. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.