Wine and Cheese (Tasting) in American Gastronomy
As I discussed earlier, in 1936 and 1939 The Wine and Food Society of New York held seminal wine and cheese tastings, events regarded at the time as novel. Indeed they have no precedent I am aware of. If similar events were held earlier they were probably organized by one or more international branches 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 somewhat stripped down. That is, they contain few introductory and taste notes, and layout is rather minimal. See for example the (nonetheless arresting) 1944 sparkling wine tasting here.
By needing find decent domestic or other available wines, no doubt the New York branch, inadvertently in other words, gained a new appreciation of table wines from Napa and Sonoma in particular, early days as it was for the revived California industry. The slow but steady appreciation of American wine after World War II in some part can be laid to wartime Wine and Food Society tastings, in my opinion.
True, the groups were small, but small numbers can be influential, especially in centres like New York. Influential culinary figures such as James Beard, Craig Clairborne, Julia Child, and Myra Waldo (among many others) would have attended or known of developments at the New York branch in the mid-1940s.
In March 1945, with the war almost ended, the New Yorkers held a 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 the Society did not normally include cheese at its tasting events, its few beer events apart.
Many Society tastings from 1933 to the mid 1950s mention no food at all. At most, maybe cheese straws or simple biscuits, and at holiday time, cakes, mince pies, and similar festive eatables. Occasionally though ham or oysters were paired with wines.
Even though the New York Wine and Food Society was an innovator for “wine and cheese” in the late 1930s, it took time after WW II for the general culture including the Society to view the pairing as routine. A sign of this growing recognition came in 1945 at one of the Society’s events at the Pierre hotel.
Clearly this was not a mass public event like the 1939 tasting which attracted (see my post linked above) 400-500 people, but much smaller, one of the Society’s regular annual events that probably attracted a small core of attendees.
The 1945 Pierre event
This tasting is notable on numerous accounts. First, as noted the war had not ended, although Germany’s surrender came seven weeks later. Second, cabernets and pinots from choice California vineyards were tasted, many with some years of age. Many 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 northern California wineries of today.
Tasting notes were included that are modern in style. 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, it’s much as one would speak of wine today, and for the same kinds: Cabernets, Pinots, Zinfandels, and Italian-style. One of the latter was said to resemble a Chianti, hence fair praise.
Most wines were from California but a couple were from other U.S. regions, e.g., Ohio. Winemaking in states other than California was widespread before Prohibition and the post-Repeal revival included numerous wineries in the east and central regions.
The port wines were both U.S. and Portuguese, the latter probably prewar stock although perhaps neutral Portugal shipped some wine to America during the war, I am not clear on that.
The cheeses were domestic or from Mexico, Argentina (a blue cheese), and Canada (Oka Trappist, and cheddar). Two cheeses with French and Italian names, Camembert and Bel Paese, were probably American-made emulations.
One of the most interesting was a goat cheese from Arkansas that used “mineralized goat milk”. The taste description is similar to what one might read today in a food and wine magazine or online source.
Crackers and cheese straws rounded out what was a very interesting event.
N.B. Viz. the blue cheese from Argentina, it may be noted that country still produces blue cheeses. One 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 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.