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 international branches of the Society, founded by the gastronome André Simon.

The New York group continued to mount tastings during the war although likely on a reduced scale. Quite naturally, these reflected wartime constraints. 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 design features are minimal. 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 after World War II in good part can be laid to this cause, in my opinion. True, the Wine and Food Society was small, but influential. People such as New York-based James Beard, or Craig Clairborne, Julia Child and Myra Waldo, all would have known of the events and probably attended many.

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 not usual for the Society to table cheese at its wine tastings. In fact, judging again by the menus publicly available today, tasting cheese and wine together was the exception. Many of the Society’s menus on the nypl.org site from the 1933 to the mid-1950s mention no food at all. At most, there were cheese straws or simple biscuits, or at holiday time, cakes, mince pies, and similar. Sometimes other foods were tasted with wines, oysters, say, or a selection of hams.

This shows that the idea of tasting wine with cheese developed slowly, even though the Wine and Food Society was still an innovator here.

The 1945 Pierre 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 of age. Numerous of these vineyards still exist or areremembered, e.g., Simi, Louis Martini, Christian Brothers, and Beaulieu. Beaulieu in particular was a progenitor of the prestige Napa and Sonoma houses of today.

Third, 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 for these impressions of 71 years ago, they read much like one would speak today, and for essentially the same kinds of wines: cabernets and pinots, Zinfandels, and Italian-style wines, most from California. One of the latter was said to be like Chianti.

A couple of wines hailed from other parts of the U.S., one was from Ohio. Winemaking in states other than California was widespread before Prohibition and 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 domestic,or from Mexico, Argentina (a blue cheese), and Canada (Oka Trappist, and 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 an artisan cheesemaker in Food and Wine magazine.

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

N.B. viz. the 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.


*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.






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