A Wine and Cheese Tasting at the Pierre, 1945

In 1936 and 1939, the Wine and Food Society of New York held seminal wine-and-cheese tastings, events regarded by the press at the time as novel. Indeed they have no precedent we are aware of. If any similar events were held in the 1930s, it was probably in London or other branches of the same organisation founded by the gastronome André Simon.

The New York branch continued to mount tastings during the war although likely on a reduced scale. Quite naturally, these reflected wartime conditions. Few if any wines from France, Italy and of course Germany were tasted. Also, the surviving wartime menus – by which I mean those in the digital menu collection of the New York Public Library (www.nypl.org) – often are “stripped down”. They contain few introductory and taste notes, and are relatively spartan. See an example, here.

Inadvertently, by needing to focus more on domestic sources of wines, this gave no doubt a new appreciation of varietal and other interesting wines coming out of Napa and Sonoma in particular. The slow but steady rise in appreciation of American wine post-WW II in good part can be laid to this cause, in my opinion. True, the Wine and Food Society was small, but very influential. People like the New York-based James Beard, Craig Clairborne, Julia Child and Myra Waldo all would have known of its events and probably attended many of them.

In March, 1945, the Society held a Tasting of Red Wines, Cheeses and Cheese Biscuits. The venue was the iconic Hotel Pierre, on Fifth Avenue. Before discussing the approach taken, I might mention that it was by no means usual for the Society to table cheese at its wine tastings. In fact, judging again by the menus publicly available today (albeit a small sample), tasting cheese and wine together was the exception, not the rule. Many of the menus on the nypl.org site between the 1930s and mid-1950s mention no food at all or perhaps cheese straws or, at holiday time, cakes, mince pies, and similar. Sometimes other foods were tasted with wine, oysters, or a selection of hams.

This means I think that the idea of tasting wine almost invariably with cheese developed slowly, even though the Wine and Food Society was a – maybe the – key innovator here.

The 1945 tasting is interesting on numerous accounts. First, the war had not ended, although its end, at least in Europe, was near – Germany’s surrender came seven weeks later. Second, numerous cabernets and pinots from choice California vineyards were tasted, many with some years age. Numerous vineyards are still existing or remembered, e.g., Simi, Louis Martini, Christian Brothers, Beaulieu. Beaulieu in particular was a progenitor of the prestige Napa and Sonoma houses of today.

Third, brief tasting notes were included, modern in style and formulation. 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. And so on, peruse the menu and read these impressions of 71 years ago, they read much like one would write today, and of essentially the same type of wines: cabernets and pinots, Zinfandels, and Italian-style wines, one said to be like a Chianti, mostly from California.

A couple of wines hailed from other parts of the U.S., one from Ohio. Winemaking in states other than California was widespread before Prohibition and it was starting to come back even in the east and central regions.

The ports were both American and Portuguese, the latter either prewar or perhaps shipped during the war by neutral Portugal if that was possible.

The cheeses were either domestic, or from Mexico, Argentina (a blue cheese), or Canada (Oka Trappist cheese, cheddar). Two have French and Italian names, Camembert and Bel Paese. I’d guess these were American versions.

One of the most interesting cheeses was a goat cheese from Arkansas, made from “mineralized goat milk”. The description is similar to what one might read today of artisan cheesemakers in Food and Wine magazine.

Crackers and cheese straws rounded out what was a very interesting event.

N.B. viz Argentine blue cheese: Argentina still produces blue cheese, indeed it makes something of a specialty of it.* See this discussion by blogger Dan Perlman of numerous current Argentine blues, one of which is pictured above, 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 and third were obtained from the producer`s website, here.  All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, and are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*In a subsequent exchange with Dan Perlman in the comments section of his post mentioned, he indicated that Argentina does not really specialize in the blue cheese area, it’s just that he found the group of blues he reviewed interesting.